Thursday, 18 February 2016

FRANCE: Sarkozy's comeback

Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy has announced his intention to return to frontline politics by competing in the leadership contest for France’s main centre-right party, the The Republican, 3 years ago. But his path back to power has been far rockier than expected;

Sarkozy's return becomes more contentious and deepens existing divisions within the party. Sarkozy is embroiled in several corruption scandals, and has failed to excite much popular support. He trails center-right rival Alain Juppé by a considerable margin in opinion polls.

Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy was placed under formal criminal investigation on Tuesday over alleged illegal campaign funding, in a new blow to his hopes of getting back into the '' Champs Elysées''.  The case against Sarkozy has hinged on the activity of PR firm Bygmalion, which organized some of Sarkozy's appearances during his failed election campaign four years ago and is accused of using a vast system of false accounting.

Bygmalion allegedly charged 18.5 million euros ($21 million) to Sarkozy's party-then called the ''UMP'' but since then renamed ''The Republicans''-instead of billing the president's re-election campaign. As a result, the campaign was able to greatly exceed a spending limit of 22.5 million euros ($25 million), according to allegations.

It’s 15 months until the French presidential elections in 2017 and former president Nicolas Sarkozy’s return to centre stage promises to make French politics a lively affair until then. But Sarkozy’s return has deepened divisions within the centre right ''The Republican'', thwarting its efforts to present a united front against populist '' Front National'' (FN).

In last Senate election, the Socialists lost control of the upper house (elected mainly by local councils), having already lost in municipal elections in March and in the European elections in May, which were won by Marine Le Pen’s FN. For the first time since its creation in 1972, her extreme-right party won representation in the senate with two seats. This underestimates the large number of local votes won by the FN which continues to cut into the ''The Republican's'' grassroots support. The last thing the Republican  needs now is another scandal.

Sarkozy’s return is adding to internal pressures on the already fractured ''The Republican''. The Republican’s disputed leadership election in November 2012 was narrowly won by Jean-François Copé against former Prime Minister François Fillon, which created bad blood inside the party. This was made worse when Copé was forced to resign as The Republican chief over the Bygmalion campaign finance scandal incriminating his chef de cabinet Jérôme Lavrilleux who was deputy director of Sarkozy’s 2012 election campaign.

Sarkozy fiercely maintains his innocence in this affaire involving the issue of false invoices to hide some of his re-election campaign spending. Sarkozy claims he had never heard of Bygmalion, but the issue won’t go away. Sarkozy is now designated as an ''assisted witness'' in connection with accusations of using false document, fraud and breach of trust.

Sarkozy gazes upon a presidential bid in 2017. He tries to portray himself as a new, calmer and wiser man since his defeat in 2012 by François Hollande. He claims to have had no choice but to re-enter politics in order to serve his political family and country and launch a new collective project fit for the 21st century. However, the Bygmalion case could prove the most damaging, especially after the investigation found that Sarkozy asked for more campaign events in mid-March 2012, around two months before the vote.

Sarkozy's ambitions have not been helped by a series of scandals, including allegations that he used money from late Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi to fund his 2007 campaign, that he was involved in kickbacks from a Pakistani arms deal in 1990s, and he tried to bribe a magistrate to get inside information on yet another corruption case in which he was implicated.

Furthermore, Sarkozy is still deeply unpopular among French voters who had voted against him in favour of Hollande in the 2012 presidential election. In a recent CSA poll, 60 per cent of respondents do not want Sarkozy to run in 2017. A BVA-Odoxa poll shows nearly 55 per cent of respondents do not find him ‘convincing’. Crucially, 67 per cent think his political return is motivated by revenge rather than a true collective project for France.

So what are Sarkozy’s motivations for returning to politics? He claims to want to ‘reunite his political family’ and create a ‘credible alternative’ that would go beyond outdated cleavages of left-right, green, etc. However, he struggles to dissociate ''The Republican'' leadership contest from the longer-term contest to select the right-of-centre presidential candidate for 2017.

Alain Juppé seems the only one capable of beating Sarkozy in the ''Republican'' leadership contest. Despite being out of parliament for 10 years, he is popular with the general public who see him as an old hand, a sort of vieux sage. In a recent IFOP poll, 66 per cent said they had a favourable opinion of Juppé compared to 43 per cent for Sarkozy. Juppé is 70 and has hinted he wouldn’t seek a second term if he won the presidency in 2017. Still, he is closer to the moderate centrist party MoDem with whom an alliance might be instrumental in 2017 to combat the FN.

However, the selection in a primary election for the ''Republican'' candidate for the 2017 presidential race is a different matter and a long way off. If Sarkozy decides to run, he will face two problems: Alain Juppé, the mayor of Bordeaux, and his own shadow of scandals.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Investigative Journalist
Political Analyst/Writer
World Affairs Expert

Photo-Credit: Agence France Presse-photo of : Nicolas Sarkozy