Nicolas Sarkozy’s return to the fray highlights why French politics will always surpass British affairs for its twists and turns, writes Allan Massie
They do things differently in France. Here former prime ministers usually fade from the scene, whether they do so graciously or sulkily. They rarely attempt to return to power. Gordon Brown has made it clear that he won’t even go to the House of Lords – and indeed his two immediate predecessors, Tony Blair and Sir John Major, haven’t done so either. Nor do they find themselves in the dock (though some would like to see Mr Blair there on account or the supposed illegality of the Iraq war) or the subject of criminal investigation. Their careers usually end decorously. They never come back.
In France, however, Nicolas Sarkozy, the former president of the Republic, is in a very different position. Having announced his retirement from politics after being defeated by the Socialist François Hollande in the 2012 election, he has risen from the grave, and has just been elected president of the UMP, the party he founded in 2004, supposedly to check the advance of the National Front. He intends to be the centre-right’s candidate for the presidency in 2017.
At the same time, however, Mr Sarkozy is implicated in no fewer than six criminal investigations, including charges of corruption and the peddling of influence. Last July he even had his collar felt and was held for questioning on suspicion of trying to bribe a supreme court judge. Of course he protests his innocence; he is “a wounded animal being hunted by Socialist judges”. This echoes the line taken by the former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, and there is this to be said for their complaint: judges in France and Italy can instigate criminal proceedings on their own authority, and it is not unknown for these to be politically driven.
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To complicate matters further it has recently emerged Mr Sarkozy’s former prime minister, François Fillon, urged president Hollande to encourage the judges to go after Mr Sarkozy. Mr Fillon himself hopes to be the UMP’s presidential candidate. He has reason to resent his former boss who backed his rival, Jean-François Copé for the UMP party presidency two years ago. Copé won that election, but has since had to resign after allegations of his involvement in falsified election expenses in connection with Mr Sarkozy’s 2012 presidential campaign. How unlike the home life of our own dear party leaders.
There is a third UMP presidential hopeful. Alain Juppé, the mayor of Bordeaux, is one of the great survivors of French politics, having been prime minister when Jacques Chirac was president, and then Sarko’s foreign minister. His own career had been chequered on account of charges of misuse of public funds for party purposes. This got him a year’s suspension from public office. But he has made a comeback, is one of the more respected – and respectable – of UMP politicians, and has a strong power-base in Bordeaux.
Fillon and Juppé got together to block Sarko’s comeback by arranging that the UMP should hold primary elections to ensure there was only one right-wing candidate at the next presidential election, and that the party president, who was to administer the primary, should not be eligible to be a candidate himself. But now that Sarko is again party president, he can rewrite the rules.
Mr Sarkozy arouses intense feelings: admiration and contempt; love and hate. He has been down and out, but, despite his troubles, it would be rash to back anyone else as the UMP’s candidate. The ability of French politicians to survive failure and even disgrace is remarkable. Sarko has the example of the first Socialist president of the Fifth Republic, François Mitterrand, to encourage him. Mitterrand was down and out at least three times before he eventually got to the Élysée Palace. He was once suspended from parliament and deprived of immunity, and he wasn’t even a Socialist till he became leader of the Socialist Party. He outfoxed all his rivals and doubtless Sarko believes he can do the same. He probably can – so long as the judges don’t jug him.
Anyone on the Right should beat the hapless Hollande, whose popularity rating now stands at a miserable 13 per cent. Indeed his standing is so low that he might not even reach the second round of the presidential election. It is of course possible the Socialists will ditch him, although left-wing parties are not as ruthlessly adept at getting rid of leaders who have become a liability as right-wing ones – one point France has in common with the UK. It won’t however be a straight Right-Left battle. There is also Marine Le Pen. It is still obligatory to describe her Front National as a “far-right” party, but, like Ukip here, though more successfully, she has broadened its appeal to attract working-class support. She has toned down its racism and turned up its hostility to the euro, austerity, and indeed the European Union itself. She looks at present quite capable of coming in the top two in the first round of voting and going through to the run-off. When her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, managed to do that a dozen years ago and France was faced with a choice between him and Chirac, the Left told voters to hold their nose and vote for the crook rather than the fascist. But Marine isn’t her father and she isn’t a fascist. Her appeal is much wider and deeper than his ever was. She is actually now talking of winning in 2017 and it isn’t impossible that she might.
Perhaps it’s time for the Socialist judges to lay off the “wounded animal” Sarko and go for Marine?
The problem is that Marine, apparently unlike other French politicians, is straight. Nevertheless Sarko would probably beat her in a run-off – assuming he isn’t behind bars. It would be more sensible for the UMP to choose Juppé as their candidate, but it looks likely that Sarko will outmanoeuvre him.
It’s all a fine mess, but you have to admit that, seen from this side of the Channel, French politics is much more fun than British – or indeed Scottish – politics.
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