Sarkozy’s Return – The Change France Needs?

Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy’s Facebook announcement on the 19th of September, declaring his return to politics, ended months of speculation about his possible comeback. Even though he vowed to quit politics for good after losing the 2012 presidential elections to François Hollande, he now sees it as his duty to save the socialist-lead country from ‘unprecedented anger and despair’. In his announcement, he only mentioned his candidacy to the presidency of his political family (the French centre-right party, Union pour un Mouvement Populaire-UMP), but there is little doubt that this is only the first step towards his ambitions to run for presidency again in 2017. In a country struggling with a stagnating economy with unemployment rates at an all-time high of 10.2 percent[1] and the continuous rise in popularity of the far-right Front National, Sarkozy as a president would need to provide solutions to the economic problems and win back radical voters. It is worth examining what his chances of bringing real change to France are and if, after his controversial past, he would still have the support of his party and voters to do so.

Image courtesy of F. Loock ©2012, some rights reserved

Image courtesy of F. Loock ©2012, some rights reserved

Starting with the economy, Sarkozy’s concerns about France’s current policies are shared by the vast majority of the country. The fact that Hollande’s popularity sank to 13% this September – a record low among French presidents of the post-war period – can be largely attributed to his constant failures to achieve economic progress. The government’s 0.4 per cent growth forecast for this year is far from the 1.5 per cent that would be sufficient to begin shrinking the double-digit unemployment rate. Hollande’s campaign promise to reduce the budget deficit to the EU-designated limit of 3 per cent did not succeed[2] either ; in fact, Brussels is now ready to reject France’s 2015 budget, which would include a budget deficit of 4.3 percent.[3] Hollande was also criticised by the European Commission for choosing the route of tax increases to try to lessen the deficit: instead of the €30 billion of extra tax income from raising corporate taw, income tax and VAT, the receipts from all three taxes amounted to a mere € 16 billion in 2013, creating a €14 billion black hole in public finances.[4]

Following such negative figures, it is evident that Sarkozy would attempt to cast himself as a saviour who can restore hope and achieve economic progress. However, it is worth looking at France’s situation during his quinquennat, from 2007 to 2012, to see that the present problems were at least as serious then. Despite his campaign promise to reduce France’s budget deficit, in 2012, it stood at 4.8 percent,[5] much higher than the permitted 3. Even though unemployment did not reach the same levels currently plaguing Hollande’s presidency, Sarkozy still did not manage to keep his promise of bringing it under 5 percent : compared to 8.4 percent in 2007, unemployment had reached 9.8 percent by 2012.[6] One cannot ignore the effects of the financial crisis on these figures; although France resisted the initial shock in 2008, the country could not be spared from its impact by the midterm. While Sarkozy declared to have ‘learned from his mistakes,’ analysts criticised his newly outlined plans to save France by saying that there is nothing fundamentally fresh in them. Though he proposed to raise the retirement age to 63 and promised tax cuts, he avoided giving specific details, leaving it hard to predict what his concrete plans are.[7]

Apart from his economic policies, it is impossible to ignore other factors that influenced his reputation as a president, such as the many and still-emerging scandals, making him the most unpopular holder of the position before Hollande (with 36 percent of popularity in 2012).[8] His nickname, “le président bling-bling,” suggests the French nation’s disapproval of his ostentatious lifestyle, including yacht parties with media boss Vincent Bolloré, a 55,000-euro watch and a supermodel ex-wife.[9] More recently, his name has appeared in seven pending scandals, including the Azibert affair, for which he was detained by police and questioned for 15 hours at the beginning of July. The authorities are trying to establish if Sarkozy tried to get Mr Azibert, a well-placed judge, promoted to Monaco in exchange for information on the investigation of the financing of his 2007 campaign. If found guilty of the most serious of charges, including active corruption, he can face 10 years in prison.[10] Although he denies the allegations, such scandals can evidently ruin his chances of being considered once more as a serious candidate for the presidency.

It also partially explains why Front National’s deputy leader Florian Philippot called him ‘a great candidate’ from their point of view, suggesting that he would not stand a chance to win back voters from the far right.[11] Recent polls provide support for his words; according to them, Marine Le Pen would defeat Sarkozy in the first round of the election.[12] His plans of ‘creating a broad movement that can speak to the French as a whole’ did not seem to convince the voters either. Two days after his return, 66% of them responded with a ‘no’ to the question if they want to see Sarkozy as a presidential candidate. He also faces competition within his party. To even get close to the presidency, he would first have to defeat ex-prime minister Alain Juppé in the presidential primaries; with Juppé’s popularity at 47 and Sarkozy’s at 35 percent, it is clear who the French would like to see win.

It is evident that Nicolas Sarkozy’s return was not an unequivocal success and his scandals and mistakes made during his time as a president have a deeply negative effect on his future political ambitions. 74%[13] of the French do not find that he ‘changed’ and they are not ready to give him another chance; this shows the clear need for a fresh, emerging political figure, still in possession of the credibility Sarkozy has long lost.