Could Nicolas Sarkozy really make a political comeback in France?

There are multiple legal and political obstacles to a successful return by the former French president. 

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On 27 June, a ghost of French past made headlines again: Nicolas Sarkozy, who was the country’s president between 2007 and 2012, published a new book, Passions, in which he tells the story of his rise to power and recalls his political relationships with various figures of the French right and centre right. 

Across the channel, the book made news not because of its contents — despite pre-publication secrecy, there are no major exclusives in its 368 pages —  but because of its timing. Les Républicains, Sarkozy’s former party, were freshly humiliated in last month’s European elections, finishing fourth with just 8.5 per cent of the vote. 

Sarkozy, or “Sarko” as the French know him, failed to secure a second term in the 2012 presidential election against Socialist François Hollande, and duly announced he was “definitely quitting politics”. (But since Sarkozy was not exactly known for telling the truth, few in France believed him.)

Indeed, there have been previous Sarkozy comebacks: he returned to lead Les Républicains (formerly UMP) in 2014 and ran in the party’s 2016 presidential primary only to be eliminated in the first round. It was Sarkozy’s former prime minister, François Fillon, who instead won. In the same year, Sarkozy notably released two separate books about his dedication to the French nation, France for Life and All for France. He once again “quit politics” after his defeat.

But this time, Sarkozy is adamant: his new memoir does not foreshadow a return to politics. “This is not a political book, it does not announce my return [to politics],” he told the French magazine Le Point. “I neither want to, nor can be involved in a partisan debate. This would create confusion and division, and it is unnecessary. It would be inappropriate.” He added (as he did in 2012) that “what I am telling you is definitive”. Sarkozy also told Le Point that he considers himself “no longer adapted to the new world” of French politics — the one that Emmanuel Macron atomised, destroying first the traditional left and then the right, through his 2017 presidential victory. Later in the interview, however, Sarkozy emphasised that “between me and France, it will never be over. Until my last breath.”

The book has prompted debate over Sarkozy’s possible return, raising some hopes among Républicain ranks. If he returns, Sarkozy will not be the first French politician to break his word (recall that in 2016 a youthful economy minister named Emmanuel Macron launched a “debate group” and promised his boss, François Hollande, that it wasn’t a party). 

As the centre right’s last serving president, “Sarko” still commands respect among the Républicains and remains one of their few influential figures. Since the European election humiliation, politicians have been quitting the party in droves. A poll this month found that 42 per cent of the population no longer regard the party as capable of taking power on its own. 

Shortly after Républicain leader Laurent Wauquiez resigned, the president of the Paris region, Valérie Pécresse, left the party, warning that “We must renovate everything, from ground to ceiling.” Seventy two right-wing officials have also published an open letter in support of Macron’s government, writing: “We want this government to succeed, because nothing can be built on their defeat.” 

Could Sarkozy be the captain who saves the sinking ship?  In his new book, the former president writes of the centre-right movement that he used to “aspire to gather around himself”, but laments that “division now seems inevitable” among his party. “In the end, I fear that each might be disappointed [in the results],”  Sarkozy writes of those who have launched personal movements. 

He also excoriates François Fillon, who served as his prime minister, describing him as someone who “seems a very different man to how he really is”. But even for Sarkozy, one of the last Républicain tenors, openly criticising the centre-right presidential candidate (who won 20 per cent of the vote despite a financial scandal) might not be a great strategy. “Sarko” risks alienating the conservative wing of the right coalition, who might switch to the “other”, more extreme but much more successful, leaders of the French right: Marion Maréchal, or her aunt, Marine Le Pen.

Sarkozy also has much else to occupy himself with: he is currently facing charges of corruption, influence peddling and illegal funding in his 2012 presidential campaign. On 19 June, it was announced that, despite his lawyers’ best efforts, Sarkozy will face trial in a corruption case over charges dating back to 2014. (Remarkably, despite this being the first time a former French president has faced prosecution for corruption, there is no mention of this, or any other charges, in Sarkozy’s new book.) In 2017, Fillon was exposed in a “fake jobs” scandal, and the right has been enfeebled ever since. But as desperate as they currently are, will the Républicains bet on a horse embroiled in not just one but several cases of corruption? 

Sarkozy’s new memoir will probably be a bestseller: it has a publication run of 200,000 copies and his previous books, both released in 2016, sold 270,000 copies combined. But success in bookshops does not necessarily translate into political triumph: as a radio commentator joked on the book’s release day, “we check on how our exes are doing, but we don’t want them to be back in our lives”. Would France want its ex back when president Macron is, as Sarkozy himself has said, an update on the original?

For Macron and his inner circle, his predecessor has only compliments: he praises the “sincerity” and “commitment” of the president’s wife Brigitte Macron, the “tranquil force” of prime minister and fellow conservative Édouard Philippe, and extends his best wishes to the president, who trumped Sarkozy as France’s youngest ruler since Napoléon, observing that “Youth is an advantage when rising to power, but a weakness when governing.” Sarkozy adds that he hopes Macron will solve this problem “better than [his] predecessors and [himself] did.” 

Sarkozy’s courting of the president predates his new book — the two men are known to be close and “Sarko” was invited to the Élysée Palace for private dinners and advice sessions as early as 2017. Could Sarkozy, instead of returning as a frontline politician, nurture an alliance between Macron’s party and the Républicains?

Before he manages to stage a comeback and run against Macron as the “unifier” of the right, or strike an alliance with him instead, Sarkozy first has to fight off multiple corruption allegations. 

In 2008, while president, Sarkozy lost his nerve and told a protester: “Get lost, you idiot!” Even if he achieves a political comeback, the phrase has stuck and — not least if he is convicted at his pending trial — it might be the French voters who tell Sarko to “get lost” instead. 

Pauline Bock is a New Statesman contributing writer based in Brussels. She writes about Brexit, the EU, France and the Macron presidency. 

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