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25 August 2023

The self-delusions of Nicolas Sarkozy

The former president still casts himself as the prophet of French conservatism. Historians will remember him as an enabler of the far right.

By David Broder

Nicolas Sarkozy has good reason to look back on 2012 as the end of a golden age. Since losing his bid for re-election that May, the former French president has been subject to a decade of criminal inquiries, and after being convicted for corruption in 2021 he risks a fresh trial over alleged campaign funding from Libya. In the meantime, his long-dominant Gaullist party, the Republicans, have haemorrhaged support to both Emmanuel Macron and the far right, and scored under 5 per cent in last spring’s presidential election.

The Republicans’ poor 2022 result vindicated Sarkozy in some ways: he had predicted its candidate Valérie Pécresse’s dismal performance and supported Macron from the first round. Though his other scandals may suggest that the former president is poorly placed to deliver I-told-you-so lessons to a weakening political centre, Sarkozy remains a major voice on the French right. His latest volume of memoirs, entitled Le Temps des Combats, was sure to be a major publishing event. A controversial interview with Le Figaro on 16 August, in which he criticised the West’s approach to Vladimir Putin and suggested Kyiv should lower its ambitions, prompted an early release of his book, which topped sales charts.

From the memoir’s opening Sarkozy paints himself as a hard-headed realist, warning that demographic shifts mean that where “we Europeans were once dominant, now we are to be dominated”. This sets a civilisational tone for much of what follows: Russia is bound to “remain Slavic and Russian, thus different from our principles”, but also Europe’s “neighbour”. Sarkozy points back to the better times of partnership at the St Petersburg economic forum in 2010, when “French-Russian relations were a cloudless sky, so promising for the future”. If some criticised his bid for trade ties with Russia for “compromising our values”, this was mere “media posturing”. Hadn’t postwar Europe built peace by putting economic relations above old feuds? 

The end of the Cold War surely created opportunities for such reordering. Yet it is rather harder to credit Sarkozy’s “economic diplomacy” with Putin as progress in turning swords into ploughshares. Alongside the Nord Stream pipeline, the biggest deal he cites is Russia’s €1.2bn purchase of two Mistral amphibious assault ships, agreed in 2011. Notably Sarkozy never explains why selling states weapons is likely to discourage their use. Surely, not all his ideas have been junked. While François Hollande cancelled the Mistral deal in 2015, Paris flouted the EU embargo against arms sales to Moscow and has in recent years pursued similar policies towards Saudi Arabia, India and Egypt, making France a world-leading weapons exporter.

[See also: Is Emmanuel Macron running out of options?]

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The battle fronts set out by Sarkozy also include the allegedly unchecked cultural ills of the present, from the “crisis of authority” to the cult of “egalitarianism”. While damning left-wing hegemony in the French education system, he bewails “the intellectual laziness of a right with an inferiority complex toward post-1968 pensée unique, convincing it of its own illegitimacy”. Sarkozy associates this “single tolerated mindset” with not only US campuses (deemed “open-air asylums”) but also European federalism and Barack Obama. Sarkozy strips the term pensée unique of its original connection to neoliberal economic orthodoxies, making it synonymous with an overbearing political correctness that imposes limits even on a French president.

Such culture-war obsessions identify Sarkozy with an American political idiom; indeed, as president he was often accused of importing US Republican codes. Still, he is also a creature of his own political place and time. Sarkozy liberally scatters the term “conservatism” throughout the book, but always pejoratively, usually with reference to entrenched interests and especially trade unions. This is almost reminiscent of Tony Blair’s 1999 “forces of conservatism” speech, though even in 1970s France neoliberal supporters of President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing promised to fight “conservatisms on all sides”, from the labour movement to the old Catholic paternalism. Sarkozy also enthuses over this battle against “immovable” opponents, especially public-sector unions. 

Sarkozy has no love for Marine Le Pen, but is against “demonising” her. Sarkozy’s harshest charge is that her refusal to back him in the 2012 run-off represented de facto support for the Socialist Hollande, helping him win. Yet she is also credited for having “got more on top of her brief” and adopted a “more moderate, calmer, stronger” form of expression. For Sarkozy, the best antidote to the far right is a strong “republican right” able to rally its own core vote; he damns his party colleagues who create space for Le Pen by shying from hard fights on social policies like raising the retirement age. The same goes for immigration and identity: the ex-president criticises his own diversity commissioner Yazid Sabeg for saying that Frenchness should be built “together with Islam, not against it”, an apparently well-intended line that, he claims, unduly treats Muslims as a special case.

Beyond his self-justification, Sarkozy has special praise for one contemporary politician: Gérald Darmanin, the current interior minister. While the ex-president’s memoir often expresses bewilderment at his opponents’ refusal to admit his good intentions, Darmanin is reminiscent of the politician Sarkozy really was: provocative, showily hard-line, and always ready to create divisive conflicts over identity. Darmanin, who was director of his 2016 primary campaign, is a potential candidate for the next presidential race, and Sarkozy expressly hopes he will one day take this office.

Sarkozy was defeated electorally before he wished to step down, but is no ignored prophet. His recipes for reforming France’s social contract, on national identity, and on France’s international relations, were not just listened to but actively pursued. Today he might speak of alliances to stop Le Pen, yet years ago he declared her “compatible with the Republic” – a leader to be criticised for her tone and rhetoric rather than her party’s “values” themselves. Historians will not see leaders like him as the last rational voices, but as the ones who enfeebled Europe’s defences against the far right.

[See also: Can Marine Le Pen win without the elites?]

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