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The Resistible Return of Nicolas Sarkozy

PARIS – Former British Prime Minister Harold Wilson once said that a week is a very long time in politics. If that is true, France’s 2017 presidential election is an eternity away, and any speculation at this point is premature, even imprudent. Nonetheless, some interesting preliminary developments merit consideration – specifically those concerning perceptions of President François Hollande and his predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy, neither of whom would be likely to win an election today.

The French electorate’s disapproval is among the only things that Hollande and Sarkozy – two men with strikingly different personalities and approaches – have in common. In fact, Hollande was elected in 2012 precisely because he presented himself as the “anti-Sarkozy.”

Today, a significant majority of French voters cannot stomach the prospect of seeing either leader on their television screens for five more years (the duration of a French presidential mandate). Both Hollande and Sarkozy have been relegated to the category of “unwanted incumbent.”

Some might blame France’s rejection of Hollande and Sarkozy on the challenges facing Europe today. Given rampant distrust of politicians and widespread frustration with the state of the economy, it would be difficult for any leader – except perhaps in Germany – to campaign successfully for reelection.

But this explanation fails to account for those political figures – such as Sarkozy’s predecessor, Jacques Chirac, and former Prime Minister Alain Juppé – who are popular precisely because of their experience. Indeed, while only 20% of the French electorate view Hollande favorably, and nearly two-thirds of them do not want to see Sarkozy return to the Elysée Palace, more than two-thirds hope that Juppé will play an important political role in coming years. That makes the 69-year-old Juppé, who has announced his intention to run in 2017, the country’s most popular political figure.

Nonetheless, Sarkozy appears convinced that, despite his inglorious departure from the presidency (not to mention the ongoing corruption investigation against him), he can recapture the approval level enjoyed by Juppé, who, like Sarkozy, is affiliated with the Union for a Popular Movement (UMP). Sarkozy, who has never stopped viewing himself as the savior that France urgently needs, seems to believe that Hollande’s plummeting popularity must mean that his fellow citizens are ready for his return to the center stage.

What Sarkozy has failed to grasp is that the reasons for his loss to Hollande in 2012 – such as his extreme nervousness and apparent untrustworthiness – are not only still relevant; they have been compounded by an evident desire for revenge. And there is little that he can do to diminish the salience of that. Few voters seem to care about Sarkozy’s quick and determined response to the 2007 global financial crisis. In politics, what you do matters less than how you are perceived.

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Just as public perceptions are undermining Sarkozy’s political prospects, they are fueling Juppé’s irresistible rise. Though Juppé, like Sarkozy, is no stranger to scandal – he was temporarily barred from public office for abuse of public funds during Chirac’s tenure as mayor of Paris – his age is reassuring to French voters, who consider him wiser and mellower now (he was also widely viewed as Chirac’s scapegoat).

Indeed, as the very successful mayor of Bordeaux, Juppé – unlike Hollande and Sarkozy – seems at ease with himself, both personally and politically. Moreover, if Juppé makes good on his promise to seek only one term, he would be able to focus on badly needed – but not necessarily popular – reforms, without fear of losing the next election.

But there is one more factor fueling Juppé’s popularity: the specter of the socially conservative, economically protectionist National Front, which is trying to capitalize on widespread rejection of the French political establishment to consolidate its political foothold. Juppé’s firmly center-right stance provides a reliable alternative, even if he is deeply pro-European.

Against this background, while Sarkozy may well become the UMP’s president in November, when the post is contested at a special party congress, his selection as the UMP’s presidential candidate is far from assured, given the resurrection of Juppé. At this point, the public-opinion gap between Sarkozy and Juppé is only widening.

It is far too early to say who will be the next president of France. But Juppé’s surging popularity is a reassuring sign that the French have not given up on reason and hope.

Dominique Moisi, a professor at L’Institut d’études politiques de Paris (Sciences Po), is Senior Adviser at the French Institute for International Affairs (IFRI) and a visiting professor at King’s College London.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2014.

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