France is once again at the center of European politics with the recent elections of Nicolas Sarkozy as the new President of the Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP), the center-right party. Receiving 64.5% of the votes out of a 58.1% of voting participation of party members, the Sarkozysts believe that he is destined to retake the French Presidency in 2017 and save France from François Hollande. Unfortunately, experts and political advisors were expecting a result around 80% in order to assert his power and uncontested control over the party. Instead the relative good result of Bruno Le Maire, with 29,18%, has overshadowed Sarkozy’s comeback. So, why does the election of Nicolas Sarkozy at the helm of the center-right French party matter for European and French politics?
Before his unsuccessful reelection in 2012, Sarkozy had said that if he lost “nobody will hear of me again.” During his absence from the French political scene, Nicolas Sarkozy was enjoying the life of a highly paid keynote speaker traveling around the world. In parallel, he had continued meeting unofficially with world heads of state and government in order to maintain his broad network. His silence ended in September 2014 when he announced his return to public life in France. Undeniably, Nicolas Sarkozy has only one thing in mind, save France from François Hollande by regaining the French Presidency in 2017. The road to the Presidency goes through the internal control of the UMP party. Since September, he has managed to paint a very dark picture of France by claiming that “it is the crisis in France that can tip Europe into disaster.” Since his election in May 2012, François Hollande, the second Socialist president of the Fifth Republic, has been facing serious challenges that had costed Sarkozy’s reelection in 2012, namely the economic slowdown of France, the eurozone crisis, high French unemployment, divided french society over its immigration policies and family values.
UMP, a troubled party?
After losing the Presidency in May 2012, Nicolas Sarkozy left the UMP in turmoil. For over two years, the party was facing financial, ideational, ideological and leadership problems. A feud between Jean-François Copé, a close Sarkozy ally, and François Fillon, former Prime Minister for Sarkozy, led the party into a dark period of division. Because of shady party elections, François Fillon called for a recall on the results. This led to a real threat of a split within the party from 2012 to 2014. Mr. Copé was the president of the UMP and was already envisioning himself as the next UMP candidate for the 2017 Presidential elections. But his presidential dream was shattered with the emergence of the Bygmalion affair, a funding scandal of the unsuccessful Sarkozy campaign. The solution for solving the turmoil within the party was the appointment of a triumvirat composed of three former Primer Ministers, François Fillon, Alain Juppé et Jean-Pierre Raffarin, that would lead the party from June 2014 to the elections in November.
Two big scandals have shaken the party, the Bygmalion affair and the hidden deficit of the party. The first crisis is the infamous Bygmalion affair, an event organizer for the Sarkozy’s presidential campaign. There were ‘anomalies,’ as underlined by Jerome Lavrilleux, a deputy director of Sarkozy’s presidential campaign. It appears that the UMP ordered fake invoices to Bygmalion in order to cover some of the costs of the Sarkozy campaign. This affair, directly or indirectly, implicates Nicolas Sarkozy claiming ignoring all of it. The second crisis emerged in early July 2014, the UMP announced that it was facing a massive debt of €74.5 millions caused by a loan for the party building (€27,5 millions), the spending for the 2014 Presidential election of Nicolas Sarkozy (€44 millions), and an additional loan (€2,5 millions). Both scandals are directly connected to Nicolas Sarkozy. Now as the President, Nicolas Sarkozy will have to address or simply try to cover these serious problems facing the credibility of the party and ultimately his image as a shady politician.
Additionally, Nicolas Sarkozy will have to work on recreating a clear narrative within the UMP. Today, the French right is as lost as the Republican Party in the US. Both parties
cannot identify their political and ideological baselines. In France, the party is divided between the center-right embodied by François Fillon and Alain Juppé, and a more extreme-right, promoted by Nicolas Sarkozy and François Copé. In the US, the GOP is spilt between a more reaganian republican party and an extreme neoliberal and libertarian branch. In both country, this ideological division is affecting the line of conduct of the parties and pushing them to the extreme right. In France, Sarkozy and Copé believe that by attracting the voters of the Front National, extreme-right, they will be able to get in power; while in the US, senators like Mitch McConnell (listen here an in-depth look at McConnell’s political life) are trying to attract the libertarians of the Tea Party affecting the historically more center and progressive line of conduct of the party. This radicalization, or even extremization, of the right has created a serious black-hole in shaping the political and economic debate in both countries. In the US, the GOP is more ideologically based than ever before – see its positions on climate change, heath care, women rights, minority rights, economic and fiscal policies -, while in France the UMP is moving towards an anti-everything party – anti-Europe, anti-immigration, anti-reformed family values, etc. -.
Sarkozy, the Solution?
The return of Nicolas Sarkozy at the helm of the center-right wing party two and half year before the 2017 presidential elections is not a good news for France and Europe. Since he has made his comeback at the beginning of the summer, the political narratives within the
party and outside have been extremely venomous. Being elected President of the Party is one thing, now convincing French citizens to trust him again is another. Both Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande share one commonality: French citizens tend to dislike them equally, but for different reasons. Their public appearances create reticences among French citizens. Sarkozy has not been able to change his image of the ‘bling-bling’ president. Sarkozy and his advisers tend to forget one core dimension, François Hollande was elected in May 2012 because he represented the ‘anti-Sarkozy.’ Nicolas Sarkozy has to change his public image and convince the public opinion. As argued by Dominique Moïsi, a top French expert, “I don’t think Sarkozy will be France’s answer. He still hasn’t realized the extent to which the French rejected him in 2012, and the truth is, while they may be deeply disappointed in François Hollande, they have not changed their mind about him.”
The road to 2017 for Nicolas Sarkozy will be long for two reasons: his dark past as a politicians, and his lack of new ideas. First, as a politician, Nicolas Sarkozy’s political life is far from being pristine. Sarkozy is facing many judiciary inquiries for several cases such as allegations of undeclared cash from Libyan dictator Gaddafi, the L’Oréal affair with heiress Liliane Bettencourt, corruption allegations against the UMP, overspending for his 2014 campaign, and the Lagarde-Tapie scandal. Second, his political ideas do not seem to have changed since loosing power in 2014. On Europe, he is pushing for increasing control of movement of people within the Union. He has yet to advance new economic and social policies in order to explain what he would do differently than during his quinquennat, which was far from being convincing.
The Need for a Political Renouveau
At the European level, Nicolas Sarkozy’ success in his party is not a good news (read here a sum up of the comments by European press on Sarkozy’s comeback). Sarkozy embodies the lack of rejuvenation of the political scene and ultimately political, economic and social ideas. Just within the UMP, the return of Sarkozy at the presidency of the party and Alain Juppé, a center-right politician, as an eventual candidate for the 2017 Presidential elections demonstrate the lack of renouveau. Both men have demonstrated their leadership skills and political thoughts over their years/decades in government. They would eventually face one another during a primary election scheduled in 2016 to determine the UMP candidate for the 2017 presidential race. Neither candidate can foster dreams of a better future. They are just embodying the continuity of the political status-quo.
What else is to expect? So for an EU in search of a renouveau and new wind (remember Pope Francis’ speech before the European Parliament comparing the EU to “a ‘grandmother,’ no longer fertile and vibrant”), it cannot afford of having the same political leaders perpetually coming back and not leaving the place to a younger group. Such domestic stagnation illustrates one of the reasons behind the lack of attractiveness and lethargy of Europe. Despite its serious economic and social crises, Italy has been able to turn the Berlusconi page and elect a new brand of Italian politicians – for better or worst -. Matteo Renzi, aside from any political judgments, embodies a new political scene. The new High Representative for EU foreign affairs, Federica Mogherini, former Foreign Minister of the Renzi’s government, belongs to this new scene. French citizens ought to address this problems of perpetual elite reproduction and finally elect newer and younger politicians, on either sides of the political spectrum. Stefan Ulrich of the German newspaper the Süddeutsche Zeitung claims that “France advanced towards the past.” With Sarkozy returning at the helm at the French right, the presidential race is officially on. Neither France nor the EU can afford a three year presidential race. They both need new ideas, new visions, new leaders.(Copyright 2014 by Politipond. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission).