Sarkozy's defeat is a rejection of the Republique de Bling

Sarkozy's vulgar desire to party put a curse on his presidency.

By this time next week, it looks likely Nicolas Sarkozy will be out of a job and – if he is to be believed – French politics for good. But his defeat is a rejection of personality, not policies. If Sarkozy loses to François Hollande, it will be the end of the brash Republique de Bling, not the end of the Republique de Grandeur.

For many French people, between 2007 and 2012 Sarkozy betrayed Charles de Gaulle’s Republic, replacing its grandeur with a far brasher alternative. The rot set in that fateful evening in May 2007 at Fouquet’s restaurant when he celebrated winning the Presidential election. Sarkozy and his rich friends dined ostentatiously; all the high fives revealing an overabundance of Rolexes, as the bottles of champagne emptied. He later spent a short holiday on the Paloma, the yacht of his friend Vincent Bolloré, one of the richest businessmen in France. Sarkozy had said in early 2007 that, if he won the presidency, he would spend some time meditating or gathering his thoughts, perhaps in a monastery. The vulgar desire to party instead put a curse on his presidency that he could not shake off throughout his five-year term.

What on earth had Sarkozy done? He seemed, overnight, to have turned the presidency into a Hello! magazine feature article: I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here meets the elected monarchy of one of the most cultivated, protocol-conscious and historically sensitive countries on the planet. He noisily divorced his wife and even more noisily remarried a glamorous model. As well as tripling his own salary, he gave big tax breaks to the rich. One member of the public in a crowd received a less than Presidential put-down: "casse-toi, pauv’ con," he said, which translates as something akin to "fuck off, you poor twat!". And so the list went on. The President’s behaviour soon saw the French begin to shudder with embarrassment and disapproval.

In contrast to de Gaulle, le grand Charles (1.92 cms), it was felt Le petit Nicolas (1.65 cms) had lowered the tone of the presidency. The implications extended beyond politics however. The grandeur of the presidency and its maintenance has an essential political function in France – it binds the Republic together. Undermining the Presidency meant Sarkozy had undermined the Republic itself.

This campaign has revealed that both the President’s campaign and that of his main rival are very aware Sarkozy’s personality will be the deciding factor in this election. Sarkozy has already shown regret for his ostentatious victory celebration at the last election and Hollande is quick to point out flaws in his character.

The Fifth Republic is about ’character’, but in a far more complex way than in, say, the United States, where ‘character’ is akin to ‘mettle’, courage, and thoughtfulness. Sarkozy has been criticised for his policies, his handling of the economy (although his handling of the worst recession for at least a generation has, in fact, been rather good), and his hyperactivity. But the truly damning aspect of his presidency has been the perception of him by the French as: unstable, vulgar, vain, inconsistent, shallow, unreliable, neurotic, and as possibly dangerous for democracy. It is this which will be Sarkozy’s downfall if the polls are to believed, not his policies but his personality and the flash, vulgar Republic he half-knowingly embodied.

John Gaffney is the co-director of the Aston Centre for Europe

French President Nicolas Sarkozy and his wife Carla Bruni-Sarkozy. Photograph: Getty Images.

John Gaffney is the co-director of the Aston Centre for Europe, specialising in French politics and the discourse of leadership.

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Is defeat in Stoke the beginning of the end for Paul Nuttall?

The Ukip leader was his party's unity candidate. But after his defeat in Stoke, the old divisions are beginning to show again

In a speech to Ukip’s spring conference in Bolton on February 17, the party’s once and probably future leader Nigel Farage laid down the gauntlet for his successor, Paul Nuttall. Stoke’s by-election was “fundamental” to the future of the party – and Nuttall had to win.
 
One week on, Nuttall has failed that test miserably and thrown the fundamental questions hanging over Ukip’s future into harsh relief. 

For all his bullish talk of supplanting Labour in its industrial heartlands, the Ukip leader only managed to increase the party’s vote share by 2.2 percentage points on 2015. This paltry increase came despite Stoke’s 70 per cent Brexit majority, and a media narrative that was, until the revelations around Nuttall and Hillsborough, talking the party’s chances up.
 
So what now for Nuttall? There is, for the time being, little chance of him resigning – and, in truth, few inside Ukip expected him to win. Nuttall was relying on two well-rehearsed lines as get-out-of-jail free cards very early on in the campaign. 

The first was that the seat was a lowly 72 on Ukip’s target list. The second was that he had been leader of party whose image had been tarnished by infighting both figurative and literal for all of 12 weeks – the real work of his project had yet to begin. 

The chances of that project ever succeeding were modest at the very best. After yesterday’s defeat, it looks even more unlikely. Nuttall had originally stated his intention to run in the likely by-election in Leigh, Greater Manchester, when Andy Burnham wins the Greater Manchester metro mayoralty as is expected in May (Wigan, the borough of which Leigh is part, voted 64 per cent for Brexit).

If he goes ahead and stands – which he may well do – he will have to overturn a Labour majority of over 14,000. That, even before the unedifying row over the veracity of his Hillsborough recollections, was always going to be a big challenge. If he goes for it and loses, his leadership – predicated as it is on his supposed ability to win votes in the north - will be dead in the water. 

Nuttall is not entirely to blame, but he is a big part of Ukip’s problem. I visited Stoke the day before The Guardian published its initial report on Nuttall’s Hillsborough claims, and even then Nuttall’s campaign manager admitted that he was unlikely to convince the “hard core” of Conservative voters to back him. 

There are manifold reasons for this, but chief among them is that Nuttall, despite his newfound love of tweed, is no Nigel Farage. Not only does he lack his name recognition and box office appeal, but the sad truth is that the Tory voters Ukip need to attract are much less likely to vote for a party led by a Scouser whose platform consists of reassuring working-class voters their NHS and benefits are safe.
 
It is Farage and his allies – most notably the party’s main donor Arron Banks – who hold the most power over Nuttall’s future. Banks, who Nuttall publicly disowned as a non-member after he said he was “sick to death” of people “milking” the Hillsborough disaster, said on the eve of the Stoke poll that Ukip had to “remain radical” if it wanted to keep receiving his money. Farage himself has said the party’s campaign ought to have been “clearer” on immigration. 

Senior party figures are already briefing against Nuttall and his team in the Telegraph, whose proprietors are chummy with the beer-swilling Farage-Banks axis. They deride him for his efforts to turn Ukip into “NiceKip” or “Nukip” in order to appeal to more women voters, and for the heavy-handedness of his pitch to Labour voters (“There were times when I wondered whether I’ve got a purple rosette or a red one on”, one told the paper). 

It is Nuttall’s policy advisers - the anti-Farage awkward squad of Suzanne Evans, MEP Patrick O’Flynn (who famously branded Farage "snarling, thin-skinned and aggressive") and former leadership candidate Lisa Duffy – come in for the harshest criticism. Herein lies the leader's almost impossible task. Despite having pitched to members as a unity candidate, the two sides’ visions for Ukip are irreconcilable – one urges him to emulate Trump (who Nuttall says he would not have voted for), and the other urges a more moderate tack. 

Endorsing his leader on Question Time last night, Ukip’s sole MP Douglas Carswell blamed the legacy of the party’s Tea Party-inspired 2015 general election campaign, which saw Farage complain about foreigners with HIV using the NHS in ITV’s leaders debate, for the party’s poor performance in Stoke. Others, such as MEP Bill Etheridge, say precisely the opposite – that Nuttall must be more like Farage. 

Neither side has yet called for Nuttall’s head. He insists he is “not going anywhere”. With his febrile party no stranger to abortive coup and counter-coup, he is unlikely to be the one who has the final say.