Don’t You Forget About Me

Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy is not about to go quietly into the night.


A notoriously hard worker, Nicolas Sarkozy recently took time away from his vacation in Cap Nègre on the Côte d’Azur for a 40-minute phone conversation with Syrian opposition leader Abdulbaset Sieda to discuss how best to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. They compared their (similar) analyses of the situation in Syria: essentially that Assad is Muammar al-Qaddafi 2.0 and that France should be playing a greater role in international efforts to isolate the dictator in Damascus. On Aug. 7, in the midst of the gaping holiday news hole in France, they issued a joint statement to publicize word of their consultation, as heads of state often do in such situations.

Given that Sarkozy’s presidency ended in May, the French can be forgiven for wondering why he’s still making statements on their country’s foreign policy.

A generally obeyed rule of post-presidential etiquette in France, as in the United States, is that former presidents should avoid complicating the efforts of their successors. (Sarkozy had suggested, at the end of his five-year term, that he would return to his law practice, look for fresh opportunities in the private sector, and keep a low profile on the political front.) In France, the issue is even somewhat codified, with presidents enjoying automatic appointment to the Constitutional Council — a sort of Supreme Court-lite. Being on the council requires an obligation de reserve, which means avoiding expressing public judgment on issues that have, or that might, come before the body. Particularly on foreign policy, where French presidents enjoy broad formal political autonomy, etiquette is everything.

So the response to Sarkozy’s post-presidential freelance policy foray was stinging. Laurent Fabius, the foreign minister appointed by President François Hollande, quickly retorted in an interview with Le Parisien newspaper published on Aug. 9: "I am surprised that Nicolas Sarkozy wants to stir up controversy on such a grave subject; you would expect something more from a former president."

Fabius went on to argue that the situation in Syria is, in fact, entirely different from that in Libya prior to the collapse of the Qaddafi regime — a collapse that was inarguably hastened by Sarkozy’s diplomatic efforts and NATO air power. Among other things, Syria has chemical weapons and is a small and densely populated country bordering Iraq, Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan — meaning that the risks of regional contagion are far greater. And unlike in Libya, Fabius noted, no major powers have yet called for outside military intervention.

Then France’s top diplomat became, well, a bit less diplomatic, as he attempted to discern Sarkozy’s motivations. Fabius suggested that the former head of state wants "to avoid being forgotten." Sticking the knife in deeper, Fabius recalled Sarkozy’s warm welcome of Assad to France to preside over 2008’s Bastille Day ceremonies. (Sarkozy also invited Qaddafi to France in 2007; the Libyan leader ended up pitching his Bedouin tent a stone’s throw from the Champs-Élysées, which turned into a source of shame for Sarkozy until Qaddafi’s ouster.)

While Fabius’s motivation was surely to protect his boss from allegations of lethargy as Syrians die, he is hardly the only person in French politics who has doubted Sarkozy’s ability to exist outside the limelight following his recent rejection at the polls.

Parliamentarian Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, who left Sarkozy’s political movement to start his own conservative party several years ago, tweeted on Aug. 9 that "go-to-war" stances are dangerous and that "Sarkozy has once again missed a chance to shut up!"

So what was he thinking? Why would he break with well-established post-presidential protocol?

Part of the answer is that Sarkozy’s political career — including his five-year presidency — has involved stepping on all manner of French political tradition. It was part of the Sarko brand; he isn’t restrained by the same taboos as previous French leaders. He oozed personal ambition in a country where politicians are supposed to act as though they are entirely at the service of a higher cause: the nation. His sweaty jogs around the elegant presidential palace gardens grated in a country where previous leaders were seen in more gentlemanly pursuits — writing, in the library, or in cultural settings. And whereas French presidents are supposed to play a pacifying and unifying role in French society, Sarkozy relished simply trying to shake things up.

In reality, the confrontational-by-nature Sarkozy was never going to evolve into a consensual figure like other modern French presidents who saw their popularity skyrocket once they left politics firmly behind. (President Jacques Chirac, who was as unpopular of a president as Sarkozy, quickly benefited from soaring approval ratings once he retired, despite an array of corruption cases that dragged on against him for years. Disappointment in Chirac, the president, faded almost immediately after his political career did, allowing the French to remember the warm, friendly fellow who had been a part of French political life for nearly half a century.)

Given that Sarkozy was always different, the real answer is actually embedded in another question: Why now?

A bit of the response is universal. All presidents endure awkward moments in defeat. How could they not when they descend from being, say, the head of state of a nuclear power with a U.N. Security Council veto and a key role in international diplomacy to pacing around in their kitchen, virtually overnight? But in France, there is no tradition of building presidential libraries, starting foundations, cashing out by joining corporate boards, and stepping out onto the big-dollar lecture circuit. The implicit expectation, even if there are a few modern exceptions, is that presidents retire, gradually prepare their memoirs, and remind the French why they liked them in the first place.

In Sarkozy’s case, the awkwardness is more extreme. He has long come across to the French as a needy man. He wasn’t just at the center of the action; he needed to be the center of attention. And perhaps he still does. So even if he knows that it would be tactically smart to go into a lengthy period of political seclusion, it doesn’t mean that he is personally capable of doing so.

Another issue: Sarkozy is only 57, and while his ambitions may have shifted, he still has plenty of them. He isn’t preparing for retirement; he’s preparing for the next stage of his career. And that will largely be beyond France’s borders. Sarkozy plans to pursue a post-presidential palace model inspired by the likes of Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, and others who can wield influence and drive initiatives on the global stage, and earn a fortune doing it.

Then there’s the nostalgia factor. One of Sarkozy’s few truly victorious presidential moments came when he stepped to the forefront of efforts to drive out Qaddafi. That tactical success is in stark contrast with muddier efforts to save the country of Georgia from Russian invasion in 2008 (Putin’s troops remain parked on Georgian soil four years later) and his frustrating high-profile efforts to lead Europe out of an economic crisis that outlasted him.

Sarkozy has also acknowledged recently watching, and enjoying, a documentary, Le Serment de Tobrouk (The Oath of Tobruk, which is a port town in Libya near the Egyptian border) made by France’s multimillionaire pop philosopher, Bernard-Henri Lévy. The film details the overthrow of Qaddafi and lauds Sarkozy’s role in making that happen. Lévy, who voted against Sarkozy but has thanked him profusely for his Libya gamble, agrees with the former leader that Hollande needs to do more in Syria. In an interview on France Inter radio on the heels of Sarkozy’s statement, Lévy lamented, "French diplomacy seems to be on vacation today, lost in a sort of holiday stupor, and I rejoice that Nicolas Sarkozy has taken the time to listen to this man." (Sarkozy’s statement also followed earlier comments by Lévy that Hollande hasn’t kept his "promises" in the face of one of the great historical, political, and moral challenges of his presidency.)

France recently sent a pair of medical surgery teams to the Syria-Jordan border to treat people wounded in fighting in Syria; while on the diplomatic front, Paris intends to use its presidency of the U.N. Security Council to push for a solution to the crisis in Syria. An Aug. 30 ministerial gathering at the United Nations, overseen by Fabius, is supposed to find ways to support the Syrian people, avoid greater regional instability, and bring about a democratic transition in Damascus.

It remains to be seen how firm or focused Paris will be on Damascus, though, as France struggles with zero economic growth, looming tax increases, and steep budget cuts. The truth is that there is currently little appetite among the French public for another war, even as they wait for their soldiers to return from Afghanistan, a withdrawal that was a key plank in Hollande’s presidential campaign.

On France’s right, Sarkozy’s foreign-policy outburst highlights an absence of meaningful leadership. As the divided French right’s main political movement prepares to choose its new leader this fall, Sarkozy has succeeded in reminding the various contenders that he is the only true heavyweight. Given the strong possibility of a divisive leadership struggle set to involve Sarkozy’s former prime minister, François Fillon, and the ambitious but unpopular current party leader, Jean-François Copé, among others, calls for Sarkozy to return to unify the opposition could well become louder. That said, Sarkozy’s Syria plea is clearly the sort of foray that could help unify his party now, before the leadership void is filled, in opposition to the current president.

On that front, while it may be smart politics, it is not very post-presidential.

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