Nicolas Sarkozy is firmly set on coming back to the Élysée Palace in the 2017 elections. The first obstacle to his new goal in life is the primary elections of the right and part of center political parties. After a short absence from politics Nicolas Sarkozy came back home and seized back control over the party by becoming leader of the UMP (Union for a Popular Movement). He then did some refreshment repairs, renaming the party to Les Republicaines (The Republicans). However, there is something burning somewhere in the house. Contrary to all expectations the primaries of the right are far from won. All latest polls show one and the same. Yes, in most of them Nicolas Sarkozy has a lead over François Hollande. Not, however, because the French like Nicolas Sarkozy, but because they dislike François Hollande more. Many of the respondents do not want to see Sarkozy president again.
In the latest Opinionway poll for the news channel LCI just 30% of respondents have a positive opinion of the leader of the right-wing. Nicolas Sarkozy is not only far behind Alain Juppé (58%) and Bruno Le Maire (46%), but is even overtaken by Marine Le Pen (31%). True, polls conducted so early before the elections are seldom correct. There are plenty of examples when they were not. Sociologists pointed as favourites Édouard Balladur in 1995 and Lionel Jospin in 2002, and they did not make it to the second round. In 2010 Dominique Strauss-Kahn was the favourite for the 2012 elections. It is true, however, that Sarkozy’s popularity has hardly moved from its lowest level. And the time for correcting the trend is running out. But why?
There are four main reasons.
1. A former president, already beaten once, saying he wants to do new things. Why then not vote directly for a new face?
Nicolas Sarkozy is repeating part of the arguments he used to win the 2007 elections. “Breaking away from the model” – good, but which model? He was president from 2007 to 2012, a minister for Jacques Chirac before that, a minister for Balladur before that, and so on all the way back to 1995. His attempt to present himself as someone, who wants “to change everything” meets the logical question “Why did you not change things during your five years in office?”. Those five years weigh a ton, and what was achieved during those five years does not bring nostalgic thoughts to voters. The heavy loss to outsider Hollande in 2012 hurt his image of a winner among right-wing supporters. In all the polls the French say they want new faces – from Bruno Le Maire to the right, through Manuel Valls to the left to Marine Le Pen. A consensual figure as Alain Juppé as a last resort. An image that Sarkozy has no chance of acquiring.
2. He repeats Marine Le Pen’s arguments. Why not vote for the original then?
In 1988, Édouard Balladur gives Jacques Chirac the following advice: “To become president any candidate from the right should lean slightly to center and not turn hard right”. Nicolas Sarkozy chose the exact opposite strategy in 2012 and, to a lesser degree, in 2007. The worn-out face of Jean-Marie Le Pen in 2007 brought victory, but the center, represented by François Bayrou achieved the best result at presidential elections ever, almost costing him the win. In 2012, Sarkozy delved deeper in the far right and lost. His strong speeches on immigration not only did not get him new votes, having a new face in the far right (Marine Le Pen), but caused part of the voters in center-left who voted for him in 2007 to turn their backs on him. As Marine Le Pen’s supporters say “Why vote for a copy, when the original has a chance?”.
3. Managed to negotiate an agreement with the centrists, but their supporters don’t like him.
Sarkozy managed to broker a deal with many of the centrist parties (NC, UDI) with the exception of François Bayrou (MoDem). The coalition brought victory at the regional elections, but centrist electorate continues to dislike him. Alain Juppé is favourite in this part of the political spectrum, followed by Bruno Le Maire, and even François Fillon. All three of them have an image of “moderates”, which can never be said about Sarkozy. Moreover, Alain Juppé is liked even by socialist supporters.
4. On the road to Gaullism. Perhaps too late.
Since 1974 right supporters have been several types and balance between the different fractions is difficult to achieve. The main battle is between the people’s right (Jacques Chirac for example) and the conservative, aristocratic, highly Catholic right (Édouard Balladur was a prime example; Bernadette Chirac brought that note to her husband). The last leader of the right to bring the two fractions together was General de Gaulle. Even 50 years later Gaullism is an important factor in rightist political talk.
With his perpetual zig-zagging, especially in foreign policy, Sarkozy disappointed many of the traditional Gaullists. The divorce with Cécilia, who was their favourite, the constant display of his personal life in media (yachts, Disneyland with Carla Bruni, expensive gifts and vacations abroad) damaged his image seriously among this group of voters. Bruno Le Maire and Dominique de Villepin get the most of their support.
Yet Sarkozy has one trump card – the party. It could prove enough to win him the nomination of the right at the primaries, then he could beat Hollande and Bayrou at the first and Marine Le Pen at the second round, for presidential elections are voting for a person, but twice as much voting against a person. And the reason he lost the elections in 2012 could be Sarkozy’s biggest trump card in 2017. The cards are already dealt.
*Alexander Nikolov is a blogger living in France
Translated by Stanimir Stoev