French politics, never a happy place at the best of times, takes on a special hysteria when Nicolas Sarkozy appears. Just as an otherwise sensible New York friend once told me a decade ago, in all seriousness, that she’d like to kill the then president George W. Bush with a stake through the heart, and anti-Thatcher groups threw celebration parties when the Baroness died, the man some call the “elevator-shoed poison dwarf of Europe” provokes blinding rage in his critics.
Many of them, quelle surprise, belong to the media and chattering classes. Hence headlines on the Left and Right commenting on Sarkozy’s “defeat” as he was elected to the head of the UMP party with 64.5 per cent of the vote last weekend. What they object to, of course, is what will happen next: his presidential bid in 2017.
No matter that François Hollande ranks at under 13 per cent in the opinion polls, unemployment has plateaued at 3.5 million, and Marine Le Pen scores close to 30 per cent of the national vote in the polls, all but guaranteeing her a place in the 2017 run-off. In private, a Socialist senior adviser involved in the last two presidential campaigns may have told me “the only true rampart against Le Pen is Sarkozy”, but she refused to be quoted. Sarkozy’s return has been likened to the spread of Ebola and the Ten Plagues. The UMP electronic voting system was hacked for several hours with a Stuxnet-like virus, as if Sarko’s victory was on a par with Iran acquiring a nuclear device.
Stopping Sarko at all costs means François Hollande has been regularly seeing two Le Monde reporters who have investigated scandals attached to Sarkozy’s name, such as allegations that he was financed by the L’Oréal heiress Liliane Bettencourt, and a possible implication in kickbacks for a Pakistani arms deal more than 20 years ago, of which he has already been cleared in the French courts.
Ironically, it was the Le Monde reporters who gave Sarkozy’s complaint that he was unfairly targeted by judges some substance. In their book Sarko s’est tuer, Gérard Davet and Fabrice Lhomme revealed that François Fillon, Sarkozy’s former PM, and his likely rival for the conservative nomination for the 2017 election, had begged Jean-Pierre Jouyet, the chief of staff at the Elysée Palace, and a personal friend of Hollande, to “hasten the judicial investigations” against the former president. “He’s coming back! He will return!” Fillon reportedly said at a secret lunch with Jouyet, as if announcing the zombie apocalypse.
Sarkozy’s enemies in his own camp hate him perhaps even more than most Socialists. The Davet-Lhomme book ended up harming Fillon far more than Sarko; but Sarkozy’s own partisans (and he still has many) among the rank and file spoiled last weekend’s proceedings when they booed Sarko’s most serious contender for the presidency, Alain Juppé, the former prime minister under Chirac, and the mayor of Bordeaux, at a rally in his own city. Sarko didn’t stop them in time. This was, to almost one third of the party members, a return of the old-style Sarko — and so they voted for his two rivals in the contest.
Can the “new” Sarkozy acknowledge his mistakes as he makes them? Yes, according to his entourage: he was apparently furious about the Bordeaux rally. He immediately extended a hand of peace to his UMP rivals, which seemed sincere, even though almost no one gives him credit for it.
But, in the end, the anti-Sarko frenzy may serve him well with the French: it has already given him the stature of an outsider, fighting the establishment on all fronts – no mean feat when you’ve already been president of the French Republic for a full mandate – and neatly stealing Marine Le Pen’s USP.
Anne-Elisabeth Moutet is a Paris-based journalist and political commentator.