Is Nicolas Sarkozy Ready to be France's Comeback Kid ?

Nicolas Sarkozy

As he reflected on the future, nearly 12 months after leaving the Elysée Palace, Nicolas Sarkozy must have enjoyed a frisson of schadenfreude while studying the latest poll for Paris Match magazine.

According to the figures from pollsters Ifop, if last year's presidential election were held today he would gain 53% of the national vote, compared with the 44% of his successor as president, François Hollande.

Startling figures. But is a Sarko comeback really possible? Could a man who plumbed the depths of unpopularity in the "bling" phase of his presidency, and who told the French after his defeat "you will never hear from me again" go back on the stump after all?

Never one to go quietly despite what he said, Sarkozy publicly mulled a return to the political frontline "out of duty, not desire" in a recent interview. Though he insisted "politics bores me to death" and claimed he would rather do the daily school run with his daughter Giulia and listen to his wife, supermodel turned singer Carla Bruni, strumming her guitar, few were fooled. Indeed, it would be hard to find a French voter today who thinks Sarkozy will not try to make a comeback. Bruni's latest album, Le Pengouin, which appears to take satirical aim at Hollande, has further fuelled rumours of a return to the fray.

The former justice minister and Euro-MP Rachida Dati, whose efforts to get Sarkozy elected in 2007 earned her a top cabinet post, told the Observer: "Politics is in Nicolas Sarkozy's DNA. He will always be interested in politics."

In many countries, losing an election, being mired in several alleged scandals and being fond of money and what it can buy – flashy watches and luxury holidays, for example – at a time of economic crisis, would bring the final curtain down on a career. In France, however, politicians rarely hang up their ambitions; returning to save the nation is as great a cliche as the British political trope of giving it all up to "spend time with the family".

"France has a tradition of the 'saviour' waiting in the wings for the call of destiny to return and rescue the nation," said Matthew Fraser, a professor at the Paris-based Institute of Political Studies and the American University of Paris. "There's an acceptance in France that politicians never retire or leave to do other things, like write their memoirs, as they do in Britain and America. In France, politicians stay in the game plotting a comeback, sometimes for decades."

Fraser points out that General Charles de Gaulle spent more than a decade in the political wilderness in the 1950s before returning to create the existing Fifth Republic. The Socialist François Mitterrand first ran for president in 1965, finally winning in 1981 and eventually leaving office in 1995. His centre-right successor, Jacques Chirac, stood in 1981, did not win until 1995 and retired in 2007. "French politics was a battle between Mitterrand and Chirac for nearly 30 years. Sarkozy understands this time parameter," said Fraser.

French political analysts agree that Sarkozy's chances of making a comeback rest on the former president positioning himself as everything his successor is not; in other words, a direct inversion of the last presidential campaign, when Hollande portrayed himself as Monsieur Normal, the antithesis of the brash incumbent at the Elysée.

Today Hollande is struggling to get a grip on the unprecedented economic crisis he inherited, and suffering the triple whammy of soaring unemployment, stagnant growth and German disapproval of France's high public debt.

The public perception that Hollande is not rising to the occasion, and does not have the experience to do so, has given Sarkozy's blustering, roll-up-your-sleeves approach a new allure, says Jérôme Fourquet of Ifop. "It's perhaps a cliche, but people are looking for something Churchillian from François Hollande, along the lines of blood, sweat and tears. Because they're not getting this, they are not convinced he is the man for the situation. Even if Sarkozy had a problem with the public in terms of his character traits that exasperated them, he is profiting from the contrast. In 2008, when the crisis struck, Nicolas Sarkozy went to Germany and gave a good impression of strength at what was a difficult time.

"The current situation is very complicated and very unstable, both economically and socially. François Hollande is not the first president to confront high unemployment, but to have this problem on top of the growth and deficit problems and necessary reforms like pensions makes it an enormous job and an unusual situation. That is why people are saying it's like Churchill and the war. There is incertitude and they are asking 'Can we get out of this?'

"This is where Sarkozy comes in; the situation enables him to say 'If it were me running the country, things would be different' and to play on this. People may not be necessarily too pro-Sarkozy, but Hollande is worrying them."

In his own centre-right UMP party Sarkozy has emerged as the preferred candidate to challenge Hollande in 2017. In another Ifop poll, party members, asked to choose from nine possible candidates, gave Sarkozy a majority of 56%. His nearest rival, former prime minister François Fillon, straggled at 17%.

Hours after his election defeat last May, groups were formed to "preserve the memory" of the ex-president and pave the way for a possible return. Sarkozy's praetorian guard, including ministers and advisers, warned him not to say anything that might rule out a comeback. The Friends of Nicolas Sarkozy Association, whose president is the hawkish former interior minister Brice Hortefeux, one of Sarkozy's closest friends, is reported to have collected "several tens of thousands of members", says its treasurer, Nadine Morano, another former minister, who boasts of having a war chest for the eventual return of Sarkozy. "The party's electoral base remains profoundly Sarkozist, especially as no clear leader has emerged to replace him," Fourquet said.

Fraser said that the UMP remained Sarkozy's political machine: "It's not like in Britain, where the Tory and the Labour party are more important in the long term than their leaders. In France, it's the other way around; the party serves the ambitions of a single person, and when the leader is gone a new party is usually created. We'll see if the UMP survives Sarkozy, or serves once again as a machine for a comeback."

Fourquet said: "Sarkozy speaks of coming back out of duty and not desire; well, nobody is fooled by that. Will he, though? Nobody can say. I think he wants to, and he is a political animal. In France we have a saying that a tiger will never become vegetarian."

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Kim Willsher in Paris, for The Observer on Sunday 17th March 2013 00.06 Europe/London

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