There’s nothing very convincing about Sarkozy’s retirement

Former French president says again he might have to come back, ‘if I am needed, out of duty’

Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy, with French UMP party head Jean-François Cope and party member Nadine Morano, leave party headquarters in Paris after their meeting last Monday. Photograph: Philippe Wojazer/Reuters

Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy, with French UMP party head Jean-François Cope and party member Nadine Morano, leave party headquarters in Paris after their meeting last Monday. Photograph: Philippe Wojazer/Reuters

Fri, Jul 12, 2013, 06:00

When he lost the presidential election in May 2012, Nicolas Sarkozy promised to leave public life. He withdrew to the villa of his wife Carla Bruni in the 16th arrondissement, jogged daily in the Bois de Boulogne and grew a scrubby beard.

“Let me make it clear,” Sarkozy told the conservative magazine Valeurs Actuelles last March, “I don’t want to be involved in politics, which bore me to death. And look how I’ve been treated! Do you really think I want that? . . . I could continue to tell myself: ‘I’m happy. I take my daughter to school and I give lectures around the world’.”

Yet Sarkozy’s retirement was never convincing. At one of those highly paid lectures, to bankers at Goldman Sachs in London last month, he reiterated that he might have to come back “if I am needed, out of duty”. Sarkozy dreams of being the providential leader who saves France in its darkest hour, like Gen Charles de Gaulle.

At his office on the Rue de Mirosmesnil, just a pounce away from the Élysée Palace, Sarkozy has begun rebuilding his team, cajoling and threatening supporters of François Fillon, his own former prime minister whom he calls a traitor.

The self-imposed silence was a trial for Sarkozy, Pierre Giacometti, a pollster and Sarkozy advisor, told Le Monde. “He’s a caged lion. He wants to roar so badly that he’s sticking his paws through the bars.”

On July 4th, the constitutional council gave Sarkozy a pretext to speak out, by disqualifying his accounts for the 2012 presidential campaign.

Little matter that six of nine of the council members were appointed by conservative presidents, or that three former conservative presidents – including Sarkozy himself – are honorary members. The council’s decision was a threat to pluralism and democracy, Sarkozy roared.

The conservative UMP is €55 million in debt, with an €11 million payment – personally guaranteed by Sarkozy – due on July 31st. The party called an emergency meeting at its Paris headquarters on July 8th, ostensibly to discuss its financial crisis.

A “Sarkothon” appeal raised several million euros this week.

For Sarkozy, however, the real emergency was not financial, but the need to block Fillon. On a trip to Japan in May, Fillon promised that he “will be a [presidential] candidate in 2017, whatever happens”.

The UMP plans to stage a primary, but Sarkozy believes his role as saviour of the right will be so obvious as to make a primary unnecessary.

Sarkozy arrived at the meeting in a black limousine with smoked windows, followed by a horde of photographers.

He was cheered by supporters – who had just booed Fillon – and proceeded to make a general policy speech about Europe, France’s failing economy and the need to rise above partisan politics.

“You really have to have all the arrogance of Nicolas Sarkozy to claim to found a political comeback on having ruined one’s party, after ruining France,” said the socialist party leader Harlem Désir.

Sarkozy said he was making an off-the-record speech, but proceeded to tweet it to journalists. “C’est moi, l’unité” was the message, as he scolded Fillon, the party’s leader Jean-François Copé and other upstarts for daring to contemplate standing in the 2017 election.

“Any division among us is unacceptable,” Sarkozy said. There was “something indecent” about talking about 2017 “when the French are suffering so much”.

Fillon sat through the standing ovation and was the first to leave the UMP meeting. He subsequently regretted that Sarkozy had failed to address the party’s finances and asked Copé for detailed accounts.

Last night, Fillon was to present Force Républicaine, his new movement within the UMP, at a rally at a seaside resort in the Languedoc-Rousillon region.

In Sarkozy’s absence, Copé and Fillon represented two wings of the party. Copé wanted to make nice with voters of the far-right National Front; Fillon said there could be no compromise with them.

Sarkozy veered right in 2012, but lost nonetheless. Now he is attempting to blur the question of relations with the Front, disagreeing with it on Europe while knowing he can ape its stand on immigration.

Meanwhile, Sarkozy is enmeshed in five different politico-financial scandals, prompting the left-wing industry ministry Arnaud Monteburg to joke that if he comes back, it will be in handcuffs. However he still enjoys the support of a majority within the UMP, who see him as the victim of a socialist witch-hunt.

“The relentless, systematic and permanent” campaign against Sarkozy will “boomerang” against his political enemies, predicts Brice Hortefeux, a Sarkozy lieutenant.