Nicolas Sarkozy elected head of the UMP

On Sunday, I went from London to Oxford. The guy who was driving was French, and working in Paris, but mostly living in Oxford, and so regularly made the commute from Paris to Oxford.

I asked him what he thought about the fact that Nicolas Sarkozy, former French President, had recently dramatically made his comeback into French politics by getting himself re-elected head of the UMP party, the leading party on the right in France (for the moment at least, although the Front National is rapidly gaining territory on them – both in terms of votes and in terms of party manifesto). Sarkozy was elected with 64.5% of the vote, ten years after his first election to the head of the UMP. The French guy was unbelieving, shocked at the parlous state of politics in his country. He didn’t really have an answer as to why the members of the UMP would elect somebody who is involved in numerous court cases as their public representative, and possible election candidate.

Sarkozy clearly sees this as his moment to regain control and credibility within French politics. Had Hollande not had so drastically low opinion ratings, Sarkozy would not have been able to shake off the fact that he was one of the few French presidents in recent times not to have won a second term as President (apart from Valéry Giscard d’Estaing).  Today, he described the right as having a ‘boulevard’ open to it, given the lack of credibility of the left. Some might argue that this is quite ironic coming from Sarkozy, who is not exactly the most credible of individuals, given the interest the French justice system has taken in him recently.

He has a reputation as a fighter, and a hardliner, casting back partially to his time as Interior Minister where he took a controversially tough stance against the 2005 French riots. He isn’t afraid of taking decisions; he intervened in Libya in 2011, and passed a law banning the wearing of the burqa in public spaces. Words like ‘energy’ and ‘dynamism’ are often used when describing Sarkozy, and the lack of a formal leader of the UMP following Jean-François Copé’s resignation could not have benefitted him more. It was his time to leap in and literally seize back power. The fact that Copé resigned following a scandal in which Sarkozy is rumoured to be involved in doesn’t seem to have held him back. In a context where both the right and the left had been stronger, he may not have been able to claw back power. The UMP is significantly weakened and demoralized; Sarkozy is the turnaround guy hired to shake it all up.

However, Sarkozy seems to be trying to soften his image. He has reimbursed the costs of his campaign to the UMP. He is accused of having charged all the costs of his campaign to the party. The rules stipulate that reimbursement is only effective up to a certain amount, Sarkozy went over this and is said to have still charged the total cost to UMP. He has also been forced to appoint a close ally of Bruno Le Maire, Thierry Solère, as the head of an internal committee that is preparing for the election. This committee will be in charge of making sure that all party movements up to the election are transparent. This conciliatory move demonstrates that he is perhaps no longer the demagogue that he may once have been within the party. What is more, several key party figures such as Alain Juppé, François Fillon and Xavier Bertrand, all of whom have announced their intention to run for President, have publicly said that all public strategy running up to the election is for them a casus belli.

Le Monde reported this week that out of the 189 UMP députés, between 60 to 70 of them had supported Bruno Le Maire and Hervé Mariton, two of the other front runners for the presidency of the UMP. Another 50 had remained neutral. This does not suggest high levels of internal support for Sarkozy. What is more, the level of voter participation was miserly; 58.1%.

It can’t have been pleasant for Sarkozy to note that Le Maire is reported as having more credibility within the UMP than Sarkozy. Le Monde described Le Maire as being the ‘star’ of the UMP, with 29% of the vote. He robbed Sarkozy of a similar win to that which he had ten years ago, when he was voted president of the UMP with 85.9% of the vote (and he was the ‘star’ of the then newly created UMP). Some might say that the most important thing is to be elected, but none can deny that the second result is much less impressive than the first. People are cynical, having experienced Sarkozy’s particular style of leadership in the past. Le Monde congratulated Le Maire on having subtly led a campaign that never openly criticised Sarkozy, but returned to the fundamental principle of being proud to vote on the right, and promising a real engagement to restore the credibility of his party in the eyes of the electorate. This is a marked contrast with Sarkozy who mocked the ‘German speaking’ énarque.

The fact is, Sarkozy still has a long way to go until he can call himself President again. Once the race for the UMP candidate comes along, he will find himself pitted against some real heavy weights; Alain Juppé, François Fillon, Xavier Bertrand, and now Bruno Le Maire. It will be very interesting to see if his credibility stretches to a successful election campaign.

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