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Features

Watch out France: Nicolas Sarkozy is back, and he wants revenge

The defeated president is ready to retake his party – and wreak his revenge on François Hollande

6 July 2013

9:00 AM

6 July 2013

9:00 AM

Nicolas Sarkozy is angry — a ‘caged lion’, one of his closest friends told Le Monde last week. He is angry about the state of France, the state of his party, his perceived persecution by the courts, but perhaps most of all about the fact that he isn’t in the Élysée Palace to clean the mess up. If the French were to clamour for his return, he is reported to have told a Goldman Sachs conference in London this month, he would come back ‘for duty’s sake’.

But Sarkozy is no Cincinnatus. He would not be treading wearily back from his plough to assume office for the good of France. He would be more like Obelix spying a wild boar. He would smack his lips and bear down greedily. Where another might see duty or burden, Sarkozy would see only -opportunity.

France is in its worst shape for more than three decades, since François Mitterrand nearly blew up the economy in the early 1980s trying to stimulate growth through government deficits and nationalisations. Unemployment is at 10.5 per cent and climbing. The economy is contracting. And overseeing the shambles is the suety, confidence-draining face of François Hollande.

Hollande has had one great moment in his 14 months in office. It was his military thrust into Mali: for a few weeks at least, he could revel in the reflected glory of France’s grizzled troops. Other than that, he has been a disaster, a boring, blithering excuse for a leader, hog-tied by his obligations to the hard left of his party.

Opinion polls — the latest have him down to 26 per cent approval — suggest that he has become France’s least popular president ever, as voters realise that his only strategy is to wait and hope that something will happen. That the economy will magically turn. That French exports will remain desirable even as they become uncompetitive. That Gerard Depardieu will return from his self-imposed exile in Belgium and start paying taxes again.

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In the meantime, his old foe Sarkozy is on the prowl, no longer the cowed figure who left the Élysée last spring, rejected by the electorate. A year of rest and recovery in Paris’s 16th arrondissement, and he is putting his old team back together. His offices on the Rue de Miromesnil, a ten-minute walk from the presidential palace, are humming. The pollsters and speechwriters have been summoned, the parliamentarians seduced one by one in tele-phone calls and over private lunches. The wealthy Parisians, the construction, telecoms and fashion magnates who have bankrolled Sarkozy’s political career never went away. They are his social life. And his wife Carla has had time to put out a new album.

For Hollande, it must feel like one of those horror films: he is hiding under the thin motel sheets, hearing scratches and bumps in the walls, knowing that any minute the maniac is going to burst in and start slashing. Sarkozy is his Freddy Krueger. And he’s back.

The first step in Sarkozy’s return will be reassuming control of his party, the UMP. The French right has always loved its strong men, its men of destiny, and Sarkozy is pure political muscle. He began campaigning for the presidency even while his former mentor, Jacques Chirac, held it. Chirac feigned disgust, but he’d shown the same lack of respect to Giscard in the 1970s.

Since Sarkozy’s defeat, the UMP has been split between supporters of his former prime minister, François Fillon, and his former budget minister, Jean-François Copé. Neither man has been able to assert authority over the party, and they have agreed to stage a primary to pick a presidential candidate for the 2017 elections. Sarkozy regards this as completely wet. The true Gaullist doesn’t earn his party leadership in debate contests with a bunch of political pygmies. Victory should look like Austerlitz, not The X Factor. Once his candidacy becomes inevitable, Sarkozy hopes, this primary nonsense will be overturned.

To unman his rivals, particularly Fillon, Sarkozy is fighting hand to hand. French presidents and prime ministers often despise each other, but the Fillon-Sarkozy hatred is toxic. Sarkozy feels Fillon is an ingrate and traitor, who would never have sniffed high office without his patronage. Fillon thinks he never received proper credit, and that he can be a better president. Fillon recently tried to belittle the energetic Sarkozy by comparing him to the Duracell bunny. Sarkozy didn’t waste his breath on a simile: he called Fillon ‘a loser’. In private, Sarkozy is said to have called both Cope and Fillon connards, roughly ‘dipshits’.

Sarkozy is now doing to Fillon what he once did to another haughty rival and former prime minister, Dominique de Villepin. Fillon and De Villepin have that born-to-rule arrogance which brings out the gangster in Sarkozy. He doesn’t just want to take them down. He wants to humiliate them so badly that it drives them out of the game entirely.

He has identified the ‘sarkocompatibles’ in Fillon’s camp and given each of them a message straight out of The Godfather. At some point, in the not too distant future, you will have to choose. Me or him. The sooner you choose me, the better for you. If I were an ambitious member of the French right given a choice between a near-psychotic political brawler and François Fillon, I know who I’d go with. By the time this contest starts in earnest, Sarkozy intends, Fillon will be standing naked and alone in the public square.

Once he has conquered his party, Sarkozy must win back the rest of the electorate. The bad economic times have energised extreme parties on both the left and the right. The Front National under Marine le Pen is doing better than ever. Only Sarkozy has proved able both to communicate effectively with its members and to neutralise them as a party. He is a liberal Parisian to his core, and yet astute enough to attract France’s social conservatives. It is his greatest political trick. His energy is causing the French to forget where he failed. He promised to be a Thatcher, but his economic reforms were limited.

It was always curious how gracious Sarkozy was in defeat last year. He said he was done with politics. But lust for power is not a trait you switch on and off. He is still only 58, and his daily jogs in the Bois de Boulogne have him looking fresher then ever. He has flirted with the idea of setting up a private equity fund, but he’d make a terrible balance-sheet jockey. He is mixed up in various lawsuits but, as Chirac showed, at the highest levels of French politics criminal prosecutions are what you make of them.

In her song about her husband, ‘Mon Raymond’, Carla Bruni sings: ‘My Raymond’s the boss, He holds the fort, And even though he wears a tie, My Raymond is a pirate. Oh yes, My Raymond is a pirate.’ Sarkozy already has the cutlass between his teeth. It’s just a matter of time before he swings aboard for his plunder.

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