Dispatch

The Resurrection of Nicolas Sarkozy

France’s enfant terrible ex-president is back and basking in the limelight. 

Guillaume Souvant
Guillaume Souvant

VÉLIZY-VILLACOUBLAY, France In a hot, vaulted hall in Vélizy, a suburb of Paris, Nicolas Sarkozy's faithful braved a bitter night of rain last week to witness his renaissance up close. And the former French president did not disappoint. 

Onstage, in an armchair hardly fit to contain his gesticulating, mic-in-hand town-hall-style, Sarkozy worked the room into a frenzy. A rapt crowd murmured replies to even his rhetorical questions. Cheers crescendoed to ecstasy when he deployed his scrappy verve, sniping at the now hopelessly unpopular Socialist President François Hollande. Queried about the constellation of corruption scandals frustrating his path to power, Sarkozy played the martyr. "Who will restore my honor?" he asked. And the congregation called out, "Us!"

Two years after losing his bid for a second term to Hollande, Sarkozy, 59, is on a comeback tour. On Sept. 19 he announced that he would campaign to win leadership elections for his conservative Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) party, scheduled for Nov. 29. Two heavily trumpeted media interviews and an ongoing series of rallies like the one in Vélizy across the country followed, with a short break this week for a whirlwind trip to the World Knowledge Forum in Seoul (a stop on the lucrative conference circuit that he has taken advantage of as a pseudo-retired head of state). Beyond, surely, lies a new bid for the Élysée Palace in 2017. 

VÉLIZY-VILLACOUBLAY, France In a hot, vaulted hall in Vélizy, a suburb of Paris, Nicolas Sarkozy’s faithful braved a bitter night of rain last week to witness his renaissance up close. And the former French president did not disappoint. 

Onstage, in an armchair hardly fit to contain his gesticulating, mic-in-hand town-hall-style, Sarkozy worked the room into a frenzy. A rapt crowd murmured replies to even his rhetorical questions. Cheers crescendoed to ecstasy when he deployed his scrappy verve, sniping at the now hopelessly unpopular Socialist President François Hollande. Queried about the constellation of corruption scandals frustrating his path to power, Sarkozy played the martyr. "Who will restore my honor?" he asked. And the congregation called out, "Us!"

Two years after losing his bid for a second term to Hollande, Sarkozy, 59, is on a comeback tour. On Sept. 19 he announced that he would campaign to win leadership elections for his conservative Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) party, scheduled for Nov. 29. Two heavily trumpeted media interviews and an ongoing series of rallies like the one in Vélizy across the country followed, with a short break this week for a whirlwind trip to the World Knowledge Forum in Seoul (a stop on the lucrative conference circuit that he has taken advantage of as a pseudo-retired head of state). Beyond, surely, lies a new bid for the Élysée Palace in 2017. 

Since he left office in May 2012, Sarkozy’s will-he, won’t-he comeback saga has been, in the French parlance, a faux suspense: a matter of when, not if. A political animal, chomping at the bit, feigning reluctance, the ex-president dropped regular hints, which Sarkozy associate Brice Hortefeux dubbed "Sarkozy’s postcards." Sarkozy made it known last year that, someday, he may have no choice but to return, "not by desire. By duty. Purely because it is about France," the conservative weekly Valeurs Actuelles quoted him saying in March 2013. Cue snickering from rivals and admirers’ swoons.

"Since [election day] May 6, 2012, I waited only for his return, because to me, he didn’t lose," François-Xavier Brock, 22, told me in Vélizy, blaming Sarkozy’s defeat on adversaries who wouldn’t endorse him. A fan since he was 15, Brock gets worked up recounting the abuse he catches in Paris handing out pro-Sarkozy leaflets. ("Sarkozy’s an asshole" is not an uncommon refrain, Brock told me.)

"It was very pleasant to rediscover someone with a bit of punch, a lot of punch even, because it’s been lacking," Monique Isambert, a retired teacher, raved after the rally. Isambert’s husband, Daniel, said they go to all of Sarkozy’s events.

Fidèle Kinata-Kopi, too, has clocked hundreds of miles for the cause. A salesman who emigrated from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kinata-Kopi was attending his third Sarkozy rally in 11 days. With a yellow ascot tucked into his dress shirt, Kinata-Kopi pulled a photocopied photo of himself with the man he calls "my captain" out of his coat. "Our political strength rests on one hope alone," he says. "The return of Nicolas Sarkozy."

UMP sympathizers have historically proved extremely loyal to the man who headed their party from 2004 until he moved into the Élysée Palace in 2007. Even when his national approval rating fell to 30 percent, 85 percent of UMP voters still supported Sarkozy, according to Erwan Lestrohan of the French polling firm LH2. Sarkozy’s base has consistently been "a classical right-wing electorate," he notes: retirees, older voters, and the wealthiest households.

"One big Sarkozy image point — about which his supporters’ appreciation has varied little over the 10 years he has been center stage in French politics — is authority. His capacity to incarnate authority," Lestrohan says. "He gives the impression of a politician who ‘takes action,’ which is the difference in people’s minds," the pollster says.

"It’s the culture of the chief that can be found, too, in right-wing electorates," he adds. "Sarkozy is an indispensable chief for them, and he doesn’t have any competitors on that score."

Some see the former president’s comeback as divine. One of his ex-cabinet ministers once likened the one-termer to Jesus: "There is a book that is the world’s best-seller called the Bible, and in the Bible, there is a possibility of resurrection," Valérie Pécresse, Sarkozy’s budget minister, told a BFMTV anchor in 2012. And there she was onstage in Vélizy, seated at Sarkozy’s right.

It seems that, in France, a politician never dies. An electoral calamity, or even a criminal conviction, prompts what the French call a traversée du désert — a walk across the desert to reflect, atone, and wait out political storms. Take Alain Juppé, Sarkozy’s main rival for the 2017 conservative nomination ahead of primaries slated for 2016. An unpopular prime minister under President Jacques Chirac nearly 20 years ago, Juppé was convicted in a corruption scandal in 2004. He was handed a 14-month suspended sentence and a one-year ban from public office — time that he spent teaching in Canada. Today, the 69-year-old polls as France’s favorite politician, cast as a unifying old sage. In September, Juppé won a political humor prize for his quip, "In politics, one is never finished. Look at me!"

But what Sarkozy is attempting is unique. His perfunctory exile, for one, looked like anything but a penitent retreat. The French weekly Marianne likened Sarkozy’s traversée du désert to crossing a sandbox. 

As French historian Christian Delporte warns, "To succeed at a comeback, one must first have gone away." Delporte, whose latest book chronicles French political comebacks, argues a comeback has to look like a fresh start, not mere revenge. But critics are blasting Sarkozy’s manner and ideas as déjà vu. And when he blames far-right leader Marine Le Pen for his 2012 defeat, it plays as obstinate, even sour.

His devotees may be tickled that Sarkozy’s back, but he still cuts a divisive figure nationally. Sixty-eight percent of UMP supporters surveyed between Sept. 29 and Oct. 3 by the IFOP firm want Sarkozy as party leader — a high score, but still down 7 percentage points since he first declared he was running. And an LH2 poll released Oct. 9 shows that 66 percent of the country thinks his return is "a bad thing," including a third of his own voters in the 2012 runoff.

In fact, this speedy comeback wasn’t on Sarkozy’s road map. He reportedly planned to cultivate an image of roving statesman emeritus for two more years before seeking the 2017 nod, gravely, like a man answering a call to duty. But when a simmering campaign-finance scandal triggered a leadership race for his fractious and nearly bankrupt UMP party in May, it forced Sarkozy’s hand.

Now he walks an awkward line: Sarkozy needs to pander to the 268,000 UMP members registered to pick a new leader in November since, as he faces two far lower-profile candidates, anything short of a landslide would signal weakness. But Sarkozy’s real objective is far broader, and even allies fret he may forfeit any statesmanly gravitas by engaging in petty party politics. Juppé, meanwhile, who isn’t running for the party’s leadership, has already declared for the 2016 primaries; free to hone his commander-in-chief chops, he is racking up dazzling, broad-based approval ratings, even surpassing Sarkozy among UMP sympathizers in an Ipsos poll released Oct. 13.

"Sarkozy’s fear was that if he didn’t take the party now … it would be bolted shut by his rivals and he wouldn’t be able to return," Delporte says. "He wanted a sort of comeback à la de Gaulle, summoned by the people to save France. Whereas now, at best, he appears as the savior of his party. So it belittles his image a lot."

More pointedly, Sarkozy’s own political storms never subsided in his absence. Au contraire, they roil anew every day. Sarkozy and/or his close associates have been named in no fewer than eight corruption scandals. Headlines are a drumbeat of who-knew-what-when and new leaked tidbits. In July, he was placed under formal investigation on suspicion of co-opting a judge for information. When police investigating the allegation that Sarkozy’s 2007 presidential campaign accepted 50 million euros in illegal financing from then-Libyan dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi tapped a secret cell-phone line, they intercepted potentially damning conversations between Sarkozy and his lawyer on a separate matter. The taps allegedly suggest that the pair may have led a judge to believe he would be rewarded for providing inside information about whether Sarkozy’s presidential diaries might be admissible in court in other scandals. The most serious charge Sarkozy faces, "active corruption," carries a maximum 10-year prison term.This month alone, six people have been indicted in yet another scandal — the rather complicated Bygmalion affair, which has embroiled the UMP in claims of 2012 presidential campaign financing irregularities. The ex-president denies any wrongdoing in all of the cases.

The sheer accumulation of scandal talk is pernicious. A new Odoxa poll of French voters released Oct. 11 shows 63 percent think the scandals will prohibit the UMP from giving Sarkozy the nod for 2017, up 8 percentage points since last month. Even more than the scandals themselves, Lestrohan warns, "What could erode Sarkozy’s base would be a drop in his presidential potential because that’s still the right-wing’s focal point." If Juppé looks best placed to win closer to 2017, even staunch loyalties could waver.

Still, his supporters seem keen to rally around the chief. Can playing the martyr work? "It works completely among partisans, who speak of harassment. A bit like what was said about Silvio Berlusconi," Delporte, the comeback historian, explains.

In Vélizy, meanwhile, Sarkozy’s smitten supporters seem unflustered. "I couldn’t care less. I trust him," said Brock, the leafleter. One supporter brushed off campaign-financing issues, citing the great cost of elections. Another noted how scandals seem to surface at inconvenient times and questioned the investigating magistrates’ integrity — as Sarkozy does — recalling Sarkozy’s photo pinned to a "Wall of Jerks" discovered last year in a judges’ union office.

Indeed, 66 percent of UMP supporters in the Odoxa survey think Sarkozy is being treated "particularly harshly for political reasons" in these legal affairs, even as 61 percent nationally think he is being treated fairly.

Preaching to the choir in Vélizy, Sarkozy flitted nimbly between solemnity and stand-up. The law-and-order conservative marvels at how safe France must be "because if I’m really the only delinquent, you can let your children outside!" Rattling off allegations against him, he joked, "If tomorrow there is an attack in the street in Vélizy, Mr. Mayor, I was in Vélizy, but it wasn’t me!"

"He will take the party. There’s no doubt," says Delporte. "But that’s only one step. He’ll still have to cope for two years. And two years to conquer public opinion, with a backdrop of legal affairs, is far from simple." 

Onstage, Sarkozy proclaimed that the scandals even spurred his return. "If they wanted me to stay quiet in my corner, they shouldn’t have gone about it that way!" And the crowd went wild. "Nicolas! Nicolas! Nicolas!" they chanted, praising the Second Coming of Sarkozy with hardly a second thought.

Tracy McNicoll is a Paris-based independent foreign correspondent and was Paris correspondent for Newsweek from 2002 to 2013.

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