Midway through his presidency, François Hollande is on the ropes: He is the most unpopular president of the Fifth Republic, and his brand of pro-business and austerity policies is almost universally rejected by the French people.
The right should be in a position to mount a challenge to the weak socialist president, but that is not the case. The Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), the main conservative party, is profoundly weakened by constant infighting and its leaders are also unpopular. A string of scandals and corruption cases is now threatening to engulf the party and is jeopardizing Nicolas Sarkozy’s desperate return to frontline politics.
Last May, Jean-François Copé stepped down as UMP leader after a scandal over funding for Sarkozy’s losing presidential campaign in 2012. The controversy revolves around a company called Bygmalion PR, owned by Copé’s close friends. It has been alleged that false invoices were used to cover up spending that went over the legal limit during the 2012 campaign. Documents suggest that these false invoices totalled more than 17 million euros (US$23 million).
Sarkozy is also accused of seeking inside information from a high-level judge at the Court of Cassation, one of France’s courts of last resort, about another investigation concerning him, offering to help the judge secure a job in Monaco in return.
Sarkozy’s successful 2007 presidential campaign allegedly received 50 million euros ($68 million) from the toppled Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi. Furthermore, Sarkozy was charged last year in a probe into allegations that the UMP took envelopes stuffed with cash from Liliane Bettencourt, L’Oréal heiress and France’s richest woman.
When Hollande ousted him from power in 2012, Sarkozy vowed to quit politics. He didn’t keep his promise, though: He’s been making snide remarks about the political situation from the sidelines ever since, and in September 2014, he made a choreographed comeback. In a televised interview, he confessed that he “had had time to reflect on his errors” and that he “had changed.”
Sarkozy aims to reconquer the U.M.P. presidency, and to turn it “upside down to create within three months the conditions for a vast new movement that will address itself to all French people regardless of partisanship.” The man who was nicknamed the “president of the rich” promised to transcend the left-right cleavage in politics.
In short, the “new” Sarkozy is a reformed character – quieter, less partisan, and more attentive to the people’s needs and aspirations.
Is he really? The public’s reaction was lukewarm if not hostile. An opinion poll carried out after his dramatic return showed that 61 percent of the French disapproved of his decision.
No one is fooled in France: Sarkozy plans to use the U.M.P. presidency as a stepping-stone to bid for the Élysée Palace in 2017.
What are his true motivations? His love of politics, or personal revenge? Some commentators have noted that Sarkozy hastened his return to politics when his name started to be regularly mentioned in the Bygmalion and Gadhafi affairs.
A victory in 2017 would give Sarkozy judicial immunity. In the meantime, judges would find it difficult to freely inquire about the alleged wrongdoings of the leader of the main opposition party and a presidential candidate who would be a strong favourite to win the election.
As a candidate or as a president, Nicolas Sarkozy needed money – a lot of it. It is expensive to surround oneself with an army of spin doctors and advisers, and to organize large rallies or commission opinion polls to assess one’s political marketability. This is a feature borrowed from US politics, where spending obscene amounts of money to secure an election is a given and does not raise eyebrows among the population.
There is also a clear trend toward the “Berlusconization” of French politics. Like the former Italian prime minister, Sarkozy is now regularly associated with cases of corruption or illegal funding. Like Berlusconi, Sarkozy may want to remain an eminent statesman more to protect himself from the judges than out of personal choice. Sarkozy would like to be seen as the savior of his party and of France, but this Gaullist façade hardly conceals a Berlusconian strategy. Sarkozy’s return to frontline politics may well turn out to be a fiasco.
Philippe Marlière is a professor of French and European Politics at University College London (UK). On twitter: @PhMarliere