Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy was placed under investigation last week over an alleged corruption affair. The court has held three different charges against the former President potentially damaging his chances of a political comeback.
Since leaving the Elysée palace in May 2012, Nicolas Sarkozy has been dogged by a seemingly incessant stream of political scandals. In total, six different affaires, ranging from Political scandals to alleged financing issues dating back to 1994, have haunted the ex-President. The most recent scandal, where President Sarkozy is accused of corruption and trading his political influence for secret information on an ongoing investigation, is but the most recent example of Sarkozy’s legal and political troubles.
The purpose of this post isn’t to examine the situation and attempt to prove if Sarkozy is innocent or not – I have full confidence in the French legal system to issue that judgment. Rather, I think it’s important to look at some of the political considerations both within this case and surrounding Sarkozy’s supposed return to French politics. To do this, it is vital to take a step back from these affairs and examine the persona of Nicolas Sarkozy.
The former President has distinguished himself with his unique personality that combines the arrogance of French politics with the relentless enthusiasm and bluntness common in American politics. This attitude made Sarkozy both and outlier and a target in the stoic, exclusive world of French politics. Indeed, when Sarkozy first broke into the political scene in the early 1990’s, he was met either with intense admiration or deep disdain. Sarkozy’s penchant for divisiveness has proven to be both his biggest strength and his deepest flaw. In 2007, when the country sought youth and dynamism, Sarkozy was seen as the catharsis from France’s sclerotic political world. Five years later, Sarkozy’s aggressive style and provocative politics swept him out of office, whereupon the former President promised to stay.
Since then, Sarkozy’s style has again regained the favor of the French public. François Hollande, Sarkozy’s successor, has been continuously criticized for his lack of dynamism and his unwillingness to act in a strong, decisive manner – in short, Hollande is criticized for bucking the rhythm Nicolas Sarkozy imposed. Even within the UMP, France’s center-right party, the quest to find Sarkozy’s successor has led to deep internal divisions and the genuine fear that the party, the Gaullist standard bearer, will implode. Recently, a scandal over financial misappropriations during the 2012 presidential election has led to the resignation of the party president, Jean-François Copé, and the instauration of a caretaker leadership led by three former Prime Ministers. This internal decimation of the opposition combined with the ineptitude of the current government has opened a vacuum that has led to the rise of the controversial National Front, who recently topped the polls in the European Parliamentary elections.
Within this tumultuous context, many people, particularly on the right, see Nicolas Sarkozy as the only person capable of fixing France’s ills. The idea of Sarkozy returning as a white knight has been the source of both intense speculation and endless commentary among journalists and pundits. The protagonist himself has fanned the flames of speculation by dropping occasional hints and references in the press. Should he choose to return, it is quite likely that he will do so before the internal election to elect the new President of the UMP slated for fall 2014. In other words, Sarkozy’s decision could come in a matter of months.
It is therefore vital to understand how the sum of all these affairs, particularly last week’s charges, will impact the former President’s chances. The fact that at least six different criminal and political scandals shroud the former President indicates that he is either a particularly dirty politician, or that there is a degree of conspiracy and collusion on the part of French officials who see a threat in Sarkozy’s return. My sense is that there is a degree of both. Sarkozy was never known for playing by the rules, although I do highly doubt that he acted in the way many of these allegations suggest. The only conclusive fact coming from the sum total of these affairs is that Nicolas Sarkozy remains a highly polarizing figure.
So does it make sense for him to come back? In my opinion it does – at least in the short run. As far as I can tell, no other political figure on the French right can unite the party in the way Sarkozy can. Granted, doing so will lead to the alienation of a section of the party’s cadres, notably Sarkozy’s former Prime Minister, François Fillion. Should Sarkozy come back, however, he must not merely do so in an effort to enact political retribution on his detractors, but rather to groom a new generation of center-right leaders. Even if he runs for the Presidency in 2017, Nicolas Sarkozy must do so in an effort to propose new reforms and solutions to France’s numerous problems rather than, as many expect, to eliminate many of his political rivals.
Regardless of the outcome of this most recent affair, the charges brought against Nicolas Sarkozy show that he is very much a member of the old French political world. A world where corruption, favoritism, and political infighting took center stage and relegated policymaking and intellectual thought to armies of bureaucrats. France doesn’t need more political infighting or fratricidal conflicts between its leaders. Instead, France needs a new class of politicians whose aims aren’t to remain in the stoic and stagnant political world, but rather to bring about genuine political change. If Nicolas Sarkozy is ready to embody this world, then and only then should he make his long-awaited political return.
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