Political unity disintegrates after Sarkozy comments

France’s post-attack ‘sacred union’ between left and right broken by the UMP leader

The “sacred union” forged by president François Hollande during three days of Islamist violence that killed 17 people this month has ended.

Hollande telephoned the leaders of all political parties on January 7th, the day the Kouachi brothers killed 12 people in the attack on Charlie Hebdo magazine, asking them to replicate the non-partisan unity last seen during the first World War.

At its apogee, on January 13th, left and right sang the Marseillaise together in the national assembly, where the right joined in three standing ovations for prime minister Manuel Valls.

Former president Nicolas Sarkozy broke the truce on Wednesday night, when he expressed his "consternation" that Valls referred to the "territorial, social, ethnic apartheid" endured by the immigrant banlieues.


To compare France to the former regime in South Africa was "a moral error", Sarkozy said.

The president of the UMP also lashed out at justice minister Christiane Taubira, accusing her of having "disarmed" the prison system.

Combative by nature

Both sides feared offending the public if they broke France’s brief political unity. But Sarkozy is combative by nature and was under pressure from his supporters to challenge the socialists.

Hollande, Valls and the interior minister Bernard Cazeneuve are soaring in opinion polls because of their handling of the crisis. They have stolen Sarkozy's thunder by proving their toughness. To Sarkozy's right, Marine Le Pen drives the stakes ever higher, leaving the UMP leader little room for manoeuvre.

All day yesterday, socialist and UMP officials sniped at one another. The government spokesman Stéphane Le Foll accused Sarkozy of “posturing, squabbling, engaging in petty politics”. The UMP vice-president Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet told Le Foll to “reserve his energy and aggressiveness for the battle against jihadi terrorism”.

Valls delivered the sharpest retort to Sarkozy, saying that “At such moments, everyone, starting with political leaders . . . must be tall, not small, rise to the level demanded by the French and not participate in arguments which . . . throw national unity into question.” Valls said he used the word apartheid “to designate a situation . . . to provoke a mobilisation . . . the mistake, the moral error, is not having the courage to address this situation.”

Sarkozy's participation in the "sacred union" was rocky from the start. As recounted by the Canard enchaîné satirical newspaper, the former president laid down his conditions when Valls telephoned him on the day of the Charlie Hebdo attack, demanding a personal phone call from Hollande, and to be the first party leader received at the Élysée the following morning.


Sarkozy expected to be treated as a “co-president” at the January 11th march that mobilised 1.5 million people in Paris. He asked to arrive with Hollande, and to march in the front with nearly 50 foreign heads of state and government.

But Sarkozy was relegated to the third row. Television footage and a photo sequence published by Le Monde showed him elbowing his way to the front row, pushing away a bodyguard to walk alongside Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Left and right are also at odds regarding punishment of radical Islamists. The UMP proposes restoring “national indignity”, a status imposed on Nazi collaborators following the second World War to deprive them of civil rights.

Rather than be accused of breaking the “sacred union”, Valls established a bipartisan committee to study the question. But Taubira spoke out against the idea yesterday.

The UMP also want to annul the French citizenship of jihadis who hold dual nationality. (Under the 1954 New York Convention, only dual nationals can be deprived of citizenship, to avoid creating stateless people.) The Constitutional Council will rule today on the case of a Franco-Moroccan who was stripped of his French citizenship in 2013, when he was sentenced to seven years in prison for belonging to al-Qaeda.

A third measure advocated by the UMP – refusing to allow jihadis to return to France – would contravene the European Convention of Human Rights.

Lara Marlowe

Lara Marlowe

Lara Marlowe is Paris Correspondent of The Irish Times