Monday, 17 September 2012

The Sarkozy comeback: not if it will happen, but when?

"Shall I kill myself politically?" "NOOO!!" screamed his adoring fans
They began as wishful thinking by disappointed political allies of Nicolas Sarkozy after his defeat before slowly and cautiously creeping into the the inside pages of the press, but there can be no doubt left today that the rumours which began three months ago have now turned into a plausible scenario - that in which Sarkozy returns to politics to lead the French right into battle at the next presidential election.

Nicolas Sarkozy's defeat at the hands of François Hollande coupled with his decision to abandon politics led to much anguished hand-wringing within the ranks of the UMP, and a couple of opportunists even expressed their pleasure at his departure before declaring themselves as early candidates for the UMP's upcoming leadership battle on a platform along the lines of 'I'll put right what Sarkozy got wrong.'

Sarkozy's name was barely mentioned for a while unless it was used to express a desire to move on from the Sarkozy era, but his former Chief of Staff Claude Guéant, faithful as ever to his boss' cause, soon began to float the idea of a possible return. He was followed by several others, including - and oddly enough given that he was a fierce opponent of Sarkozy during his presidency - Dominique de Villepin. He declared on French TV in August that he believed Sarkozy would be back, adding that "Today, both the right and the left are writing a plausible and absolutely extraordinary scenario for him which is just incredible. The French are very fond of these situations."

Indeed they are, and it is perhaps this penchant for unlikely comebacks and underdog situations that could lead them to consider voting for Sarkozy in a few years, because there is now a lot of circumstantial and real evidence that although he is staying away from active politics at the moment his troops have placed him at the centre of the party's affairs.

My first-coffee-of-the-day tour of French news sites this morning turned up some interesting poll results which reveal that 44% of those polled think that presidential action would have been better if Nicolas Sarkozy had been elected, with only 26% supporting the work of François Hollande. This poll is one of several which ask the same kind of questions and come up with the same answers, and they show without a doubt that there is still a lot of public support for Sarkozy.

Discussion of the rumours of a Sarkozy resurrection are now an everyday occurence in the French press, and much of it is centred upon whether or not he is somehow pulling the strings behind the scenes of the current UMP leadership battle being fought between favourites François Fillon and Jean-François Copé, both of whom are faithful Sarkozysts. There is no proof of his implication but there is no doubt either that he is now an omnipresent factor in the fight to win the UMP's presidency, which will be decided on November 18, and several of the early candidates explained their retirement from the race by saying that they were doing so to help Sarkozy by leaving two of his most influential supporters to fight it out.

It is telling too that neither candidate is campaigning on a platform to take the party away from Sarkozy's policies. On the contrary, both of them make almost daily declarations of faith to Sarkozy in order to please the many Sarkozysts within the voting militants' ranks, and UMP heavyweight Christian Estrosi recently announced his backing for Fillon whilst at the same time declaring that Sarkozy is still the "natural leader" of the UMP and that if a presidential election were to be held now Sarkozy would win it.

Guéant agrees with this of course, and he told reporters on Sunday that Sarkozy could represent a good option for France. He went on to say that if Sarkozy were to become the UMP's presidential candidate he would have to be elected as party leader too and he even exhorted him to contest November's election, although he left the door wide open for him to refuse by pointedly adding that the vote in November was not about electing a presidential candidate.

But perhaps the most pointed and obvious clue to date as to how UMP members are thinking came today from Nadine Morano, who was Sarkozy's Minister for Apprenticeship and Professional Formation. She has declared that she will support Copé in November because "...he has publicly asserted that if Nicolas Sarkozy decided to get back into politics he would support him." The message couldn't be more clear, particularly as she added that it was by no means certain that the next leader of the UMP would be its presidential candidate.

And what does Sarkozy himself have to say about all this? The answer, of course, is nothing. He cannot be seen to be actively influencing the vote, but his silence on the many stories concerning his possible return are a clear sign that he is not denying them in order to keep those within the UMP who may criticise him in check from a distance via their fear of reprisals should he return.

He is also aware that none of this speculation is good news for François Hollande or his government. He had the lowest poll ratings of any president in the 5th Republic after three months in office, and the French are becoming increasingly impatient with what they see as his lack of action, notably on the economy. Unemployment has hit 3 million for the first ever time and there are several major layoffs in the pipeline in major industries and companies. This means that he is hardly in a position, so far, to be able to dismiss the possibility of the eventual return of Sarkozy with an absent wave of the hand by citing progress made under himself, of which there has as yet been precious little.

Despite his physical absence from political life, it is as if Sarkozy never left politics in the first place. Almost all of his former ministers have openly backed him recently, the future party leader may turn out to be no more than a caretaker, and he is being openly touted as a future presidential option after being out of office for only a few months. If Sarkozy has in fact secretly decided to make a political comeback, and as Valentin Spitz put it for Nouvelobs, "..he knows that the most urgent thing to do is wait in order to allow Fillon and Copé to rip each other to pieces and Hollande to mess things up."

Nicolas Sarkozy once said that his decision to run for president in 2007 (and win) was taken while he was taking a shave two years earlier, and although there are relatively few recent photos of him my money says that he is still shaving.....

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