He’s back: Nicolas Sarkozy promises return to French politics

He is back. Or rather, some say, he never went away. Nicolas Sarkozy will announce on television this weekend that he is abandoning his gilded retirement and returning to politics to save France from economic and political calamity. A brief statement has appeared on Mr Sarkozy’s Facebook page.

His friends compare him to General Charles de Gaulle, who returned from self-imposed exile in Colombey-les-Deux-Églises in 1958, or to the Emperor Napoleon, who escaped from enforced exile in Elba to restore the Empire in 1815.

Critics, however, say Mr Sarkozy, 59, is more like the Count of Monte Cristo, determined to revenge himself on those – both apparent friends and declared enemies – who have belittled him and thwarted his ambition.

In private, he is especially vicious about President François Hollande, the man who turned him out of the Elysée Palace in 2012. The former president says Mr Hollande should not be defeated, but hounded out of office and “tarred and feathered”.

At the same time, Mr Sarkozy’s friends have let it be known that the born-again Sarko plans to be a gentler, more inclusive leader, less impetuous, less self-regarding and more focused on the reforms France needs.

He is returning, they say, not from personal ambition or a spirit of revenge but because he is the only man that can rescue France from the menacing rise of Marine Le Pen’s cosmetically laundered, far-right Front National.

Either way, Mr Sarkozy has been forced to declare his hand early and to take an enormous risk (against, it is reported, the wishes of his wife, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy).

He will run in an internal party election for the vacant presidency of the centre-right Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP) – a job that he mocked as beneath his former-presidential dignity a year ago. He will do so partly to try to rescue a party which has been torn part by financial scandals, largely of his own making.

He will do so in an attempt to re-establish himself as the de facto leader of the opposition before his credibility is destroyed by one or more of a cat’s cradle of half a dozen criminal investigations in which his name has appeared.

He will do so mostly to try to derail a dangerous rival candidacy by Alain Juppé, the popular but ageing former centre-right Prime Minister. 

Mr Juppé, 69, announced last month that he would run in an “open primary” planned by the UMP in 2016 to select the centre-right party’s candidate for the presidential election the following year.

An “open” primary would be open to all French electors. Mr Juppé is popular with the electorate at large – even with some left-wing voters.

Mr Sarkozy remains heartily disliked by more than 60 per cent of French people. He is hero-worshipped by grass-roots members of the UMP, especially the younger ones.

He would struggle in an open primary against Mr Juppé, but should easily win the internal election for the party president in November.

Mr Sarkozy then plans to, in effect, abolish the UMP and start a new party with a new name, capturing, if possible, a few, floating centrist political figures. His declared aim will be to give the French centre-right a fresh start with a coherent, reformist programme.

The watch-words, his friends say, would be “protection” (which may or not mean protectionism) and “dissolving rigid right-left divisions”. Both of these are ideas, or postures, employed by Ms Le Pen. Mr Sarkozy insists, however, that he will not return to the hard-right flag-waving and Islam-baiting of his failed 2012 campaign.

Since the new party will be built in Mr Sarkozy’s image, his friends point out, there will be no need for a primary election in 2016. Mr Sarkozy will already be the de facto Big Thing on the centre-right. He will be the obvious candidate to take on the Left and Ms Le Pen in 2017.

The strategy could work. Mr Sarkozy could become the first defeated French president of the Fifth Republic (post-1958) to run again. Despite the long list of legal investigations involving his activities before, during and after his 2007-2012 presidency, he could return to the Élysée Palace.

Mr Hollande, and the entire Left, is desperately unpopular. A large majority of French people – faced with a second-round choice in 2017 between Mr Sarkozy and Ms Le Pen – would almost certainly vote for the former president.

All the same, Mr Sarkozy is taking an enormous risk, both for himself and for France.

He has already been placed under formal investigation for trafficking his political influence to shape a decision in France’s highest court.

Investigations continue into, among other things, his alleged political funding by the late Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi and the misuse of UMP party funds to breach the legal limit on spending on his 2012 presidential campaign.

By returning to politics, Mr Sarkozy hopes to strengthen his argument that all such investigations are politically driven. He could, however, saddle France with a de facto leader of the opposition who is in profound legal trouble.

Imagine a 2017 election in which the three principal candidates are: a desperately unpopular candidate of the Left (who may or may not be Mr Hollande); a legally compromised Mr Sarkozy; and Marine Le Pen.

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