On September 19, former President Nicolas Sarkozy hit newspaper headlines with his comeback on the French political scene. He pledged to rally French conservatives and run for the presidency of the center-right party, UMP, to build a new political force capable of attracting voters across the French political spectrum. Although many have raised questions as to whether Sarkozy is up to the task, several lines of evidence strongly suggest that he will be successful.
According to Machiavelli, an Italian philosopher best known for being the founder of modern political theory, the success of a given leader is based on inner and outer properties that he designates as irtu and fortuna, respectively. The combination of both elements brings success to the leader.
Virtu refers to the range of personal qualities that leaders need to gain power, such as intuition, communication, and persuasion. Sarkozy has an instinct for power, as is apparent from his dazzling climb in French politics. At the age of 28, he was elected as the mayor of Neuilly, becoming “the youngest ever mayor of any town in France with a population of over 50,000.” In less than ten years, he joined the National Assembly and was appointed Minister for the Budget. Sarkozy was a close ally of Jacques Chirac, whose support was necessary for those attempting to reach the top of French politics. In his memoirs, Chirac described Sarkozy as “one of the most gifted politicians of his generation.”
Sarkozy’s capacity to network and persuade people such as Bernadette Chirac, who possessed important influence on her husband’s decisions, contributed to his appointment as the Minister of Interior in 2005. Chirac had previously been convinced that Sarkozy would fail because France was facing important social tensions and violent riots in the suburbs of Paris. Nevertheless, Sarkozy’s ability to generate headlines and cope with challenges translated into a substantial increase in his popularity among French citizens, with 67 percent of citizens supporting him in 2002. These successes paved the way to his election as the UMP candidate for the 2007 presidential election.
Fortuna, which Machiavelli defines as the external factors and circumstances that confront a ruler, tends in Sarkozy’s favor, given the current French financial situation and reflected in the latest polls. The polls show that 60 percent French citizens believe he is better placed than President Hollande to fix France’s problems. While economic recovery seems at last to be underway throughout the European Union, France lags behind with a forecasted 2014 growth rate of around 0.5 percent after a previous projection of 1 percent. In fact, “unemployment hit a new record last June to a shade under 3.4 million [10.4 percent of France’s population] while the forecast for France’s public deficit is now predicted to be above 4% of GDP this year – missing key targets demanded of it by the EU.” By comparison, first quarter GDP growth in the eurozone was just under 1 percent, while Germany achieved a growth rate of 2.3 percent and Britain managed 3.1 percent.
Furthermore, Nicolas Sarkozy benefits from the challenges facing current president François Hollande, who continues to struggle with a growing number of dissident Socialists opposing his austerity policies and a wave of scandals including a tell-all book published by his former companion. His public support has dropped to just 13 percent, the lowest score ever attained by a French president.
Similarly, the UMP has sailed through murky and even turbulent waters. The battle for the party’s presidency was fierce contest that created deep divisions between those who supported Sarkozy’s former Prime Minister François Fillon and those who favored UMP secretary-general Jean-François Copé. Moreover, the UMP is suspected of having covered up illegal campaign funding in 2012, which substantially damaged the party’s leadership and forced the recent resignation of President Copé. Sarkozy continues to enjoy popularity among right-wing voters, polling at 25 percent to UMP competitors Juppé’s (17 percent) and Fillon (12 percent). The confluence of internal and external factors favors Sarkozy’s comeback as a figure able to unify the fragmented UMP.
During the last European Parliament elections in May 2014, the UMP sank to second place, winning 21 percent to the far-right National Front’s (FN) 25 percent. As a result, French media predicted that the nationalist FN party would pose a significant risk to Sarkozy’s eventual reelection in 2017. Those who support this view, however, have forgotten the 2002 French presidential contest, in which Chirac (as opposed to a FN candidate) experienced the biggest landslide in Europe’s democratic annals. Chirac’s success in 2002 resulted from left-wing voters who chose the “lesser evil” to demonstrate that a right-wing president was better than a nationalist one.
In sum, Sarkozy’s choice to mount a comeback is a risky gamble. A defeat would certainly mean the end of his political career. Nevertheless, his key inner strengths and a favorable external climate suggest that Sarkozy will likely become the first non-reelected president to regain power in France’s modern history.
Szymon Jagiello is a Master of Arts candidate in Global Diplomacy at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). He is currently working for a Brussels-based organization specializing in European affairs. His writings have been published in the Yonsei Journal of International Affairs>, the Tufts University’s Hemispheres, and the . He has also received a number of awards in both foreign policy and poetry essay contests.
“Nicolas Sarkozy – World Economic Forum Annual Meeting 2011” by Moritz Hager / World Economic Forum is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.