He's Back: Sarkozy Eyes a Return to French Presidency
After an extended break from politics, former French President Nicolas Sarkozy is ready to make a comeback. Former advisors say he is more patient and a better listener. Critics, though, say he has drifted even further to the right. Is France ready for the sequel?
Nicolas Sarkozy receives us in an eighth floor office where everything, including the desk chair, is bright white. He is wearing a tie and has removed his jacket. It's his working mode, he says. He adds that he doesn't really even have time for a conversation.
Raising children is just like politics, he says. It doesn't matter how you explain something. What matters are your actions. It's important to set an example instead of talking about things, he pontificates. We have only been in his office for two minutes.
It took months to arrange this meeting -- months Sarkozy spent pushing his way back into the limelight. But he did so in an unusually subdued manner, at least for him. For a long time, it seemed as if his attempted return to the political arena would not materialize. It was as if he had already had his opportunity and the French were not interested in allowing him to try again.
But Sarkozy, who likens himself to a boxer, bobbed and weaved -- and stayed in the ring. He was elected as party head with a slim, two-thirds' majority. He deflected his opponents' attacks, but not with a knock-out punch, as in the past, but by simply ignoring them. At the same time, he gradually increased his public presence. Now he is back -- and wants to be elected president once again.
We sit down in the seating area, in elegant white Bauhaus chairs. Large, coffee-table art books are stacked in front of us. Still grumpy, he opens a box of chocolates. There is one question that particularly annoys him: Have you changed, Monsieur Sarkozy?
He sighs and rolls his eyes. He has retained his penchant for the theatrical. The question is distasteful because it encompasses a desire, an expectation, that he is no longer the person he once was. A commentator wrote recently that Sarkozy had become tamed, that he can now sit still in a chair and that his voice has lost its acerbity.
Wanting to Be Wanted
Sarkozy shakes his head, as though the article were an annoying fly that he could simply brush away. He doesn't like this question because it suggests that he, the former president, could be treated with anything but deference, even with skepticism. It irritates him because it isn't as much an expression of the desire for his return as for his metamorphosis. But Sarkozy doesn't just want to be needed. He also wants to be wanted. He doesn't like doing things by halves.
What others think about him, what others want from him, is suddenly -- once again -- very important to Sarkozy. And it will only become more important as the spring of 2017 approaches. That is when the French will elect their next president.
Sarkozy turned 60 in January. There is a black-and-white portrait of his three-and-a-half-year-old daughter Giulia on his desk, and framed pictures of the girl are on the wall. There is also a photo of his wife, Carla Bruni, holding a guitar. He has attended more than 50 of her concerts in recent years. But those days are now over. Carla will be performing in Beijing soon, he says, but she will have to go alone this time. He doesn't sound remorseful. His busy schedule as a private citizen and as a well-paid speaker was partly to avoid the risk of being seen as indolent by his own wife. Worst yet, he was concerned that he might begin to see himself as someone with nothing more to look forward to. As though he had already done all there was to do.
Wouldn't his family rather have him spend more time with them than return to politics? "Of course," he says. Despite his increasingly busy schedule, he and his wife still watch a movie together in his home theater almost every day. He loves Capra, he says, and Lubitsch, Hitchcock and Sean Penn -- "but not just as an actor, also as a director." He doesn't have a favorite book or film. "Books, films, it's a concept. You have to love them all." It almost seems as if he were drawing a heart in the air with his hands.
Before books and films, politics was the central "concept" for this man, who is 1.65 meters (5'4") tall. Politics shaped his life for so long that he could envision actually leaving public life behind, as he swore both before and after he was voted out of office. The son of a Hungarian aristocrat and the daughter of a medical doctor, he has achieved everything. He was a city council member at 22 and a mayor at 28. He was the so-called super-minister of the economy and finance, served two terms as interior minister and was the head of his party whenever he ran for office.
He became French president at 52. He had always been open about his desire to attain France's highest political office, saying years prior to his election that he thought often about the presidency, and "not just while I'm shaving." He was unstoppable. He defeated all of his adversaries, including the most powerful one of all, his predecessor Jacques Chirac, whose protégé he had been before becoming his archenemy. But he didn't win over the French, who voted him out of office after only a single term. Is this what drives him? Is being reelected his last great challenge?
When Sarkozy gazes at his interlocutor, he raises his arching eyebrows up towards his high hairline. He has hardly aged at all, aside from his hair turning a little grayer. The beard he grew during his hiatus from the public spotlight is gone, as is the tan he sported throughout the winter.
There was nothing else he could have done, he says innocently. His return to politics was essentially imposed upon him, he explains. He calls it "devoir," an obligation. He lists the reasons: his party, divided by internal struggles; the growing strength of the far-right Front National; a Socialist government that has taken the country to the brink of disaster. "I cannot simply say that none of this concerns me," he says. He frequently ends his sentences with the word "yes," followed by a question mark. He wants more than just confirmation. He wants approval.
The playwright Yasmina Reza accompanied Sarkozy for an entire year during his election campaign. She writes that she was surprised to realize how much Sarkozy reminded her of a child, a little boy. His craving for recognition, the temper tantrums, the demand for affirmation. He told her how he had always anticipated everything, from his successes to the presidency, and how pleased he could have been when it all materialized the way he had predicted. But this, he said, was also perhaps the reason he could no longer feel any anticipation or excitement: "It's not a nice feeling." At the time, in 2007, he also spoke with Reza about his life "beyond ambition," a life he said he was looking forward to. The question is whether that sort of a life, a life without ambition or goals, even exists for Sarkozy.
His only real hiatus from the political stage was extremely brief. It began on May 6, 2012, when François Hollande narrowly defeated him in the runoff election. Sarkozy captured 48.36 percent of the vote: not a humiliation but a defeat nonetheless, all the more so because he had not perceived Hollande as a rival but as a lightweight. That was three years ago, but the period of radio silence between "Sarko" and his country -- which, as he describes it, sounds more like a ward entrusted to his care -- lasted only about three months. He was the hyper-president, the omni-president, a man who preferred to do everything himself and even downgraded his own prime minister to the role of "collaborateur," as though he were but a normal employee.
Jogging and English Lessons
It is difficult to imagine that someone like this could suddenly no longer have any political influence, but instead would spend his time cycling, jogging, going on vacation and taking English lessons. There was talk that he would be back, but it was a little reminiscent of the moment in a horror film when it is unclear whether the monster will be neutralized or will attack again.
Since his party won the hard-fought departmental elections a few weeks ago, his self-confidence has returned -- and along with it, his sometimes tame, sometimes assertive megalomania. Sarkozy's party, the Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), dealt the ruling Socialists their most humiliating defeat in rural France since 1992. Districts that had for decades been firmly in the hands of the Socialists are now controlled by the center-right UMP.
It is also to Sarkozy's credit that he prevented the far-right Front National from achieving an even better result in this test of the political mood. He sees himself as the only rival to Front National leader Marine Le Pen worth taking seriously, and he believes that he alone is capable of stopping her ascent. He may be right, but his opponents are not the only ones who believe that it was also Sarkozy who sowed the seeds for Le Pen's success in the first place.
When Sarkozy was elected in 2007, the Front National captured so few votes that the new president pronounced the party's demise. He was wrong. Indeed, the fact that the far-right movement was able intrude on the prevailing two-party system in the ensuing years is also partly attributable to Sarkozy. After all, he helped make Front National issues socially acceptable. As president, he stirred up a debate over "national identity," which quickly mutated into a forum for all manner of xenophobia. He tightened immigration law and pursued a rigorous deportation policy. Instead of opposing Le Pen with more moderate positions, it seemed -- and continues to seem -- as though he were emulating her.
It's an evening in March and Sarkozy is standing on a town-hall stage somewhere northeast of Paris. He spends 10 minutes ridiculing "François Hollande, the liar," and his failings, but then his voice become serious - and biting. "Are we Frenchmen?" he asks. "Do we speak French? Do we love our culture?" Yes, the audience shouts. Yes, he shouts back. "And that is why they should conform, not us!"
The crowd hoots and claps loudly. He now uses the word assimilation instead of integration when talking about immigration. He wants to get rid of pork-free meals in school cafeterias, because "the republican school model does not conform to the wishes of Muslims" -- as if pork-eating children would grow up to become better republicans.
Pop Star Status
After his appearance, he is standing in the coatroom, a narrow space filled with mirrors. Exhilarated, he loosens his tie and wipes the sweat from his neck with a towel. The standing-room-only crowd had cheered him on for minutes at time. They chanted his name until the French national anthem, the Marseillaise, was played on the sound system, and they continued to chant after it ended. Nicolas! Nicolas! He hasn't lost any of his pop star status.
"Did you see how quiet it was in the room?" he asks, switching to the familiar tu. "Did you see how attentively they listened to me? Did you see it?" He says that he will not allow the Front National to govern France. He estimates that about a quarter of the audience sympathizes with the Front. "I will not allow them to simply carry on," he says. He is literally besieged when he steps outside. It takes him 15 minutes to walk the few meters to his car.
Later, in the quiet of his office, when asked to describe his strategy to fend off the Front National, he replies that his strategy is precisely what we have just observed.
But why do some of his sentences sound as if they were coming from Marine Le Pen herself?
"That's correct," he replies. But if Le Pen says that the sun is shining on a sunny day, he doesn't believe he should be forced to say that it's raining.
His controversial shift to the right has divided both his party and his associates. In the winter, when he said once again that the headscarf should be banned in universities, a former speechwriter said that Sarkozy should not create animosity among the French. His adviser and friend Alain Minc also distanced himself from Sarkozy, saying that he favored Alain Juppé as a candidate for the UMP. Juppé is the opposite of Sarkozy -- tall, dignified and with moderate views. He's also a little boring.
But Sarkozy's strategy seems to be working. Until March 29, 2015, the day of his party's success in the departmental elections, his return was considered a fiasco. He was seen as an ex-president who was only being talked about because of a number of pending scandals, ranging from campaign finance irregularities to suspicions of corruption and the improper exertion of influence. But the fact that Sarkozy was the first former president to be taken into police custody for hours of questioning has less to do with the allegations themselves than with a changing perception of France's highest office.
'I Never Look Back'
Once sacrosanct, the inviolability of the French presidency is now a thing of the past. And it was Sarkozy himself who contributed to its undoing. Unlike his predecessors, he never saw himself as being above the fray. Sometimes he only unsettle his own ministers, but at times he would do the same to his own people. There was, for example, the unforgettable press conference when he announced that there was "something serious" between Carla and himself. Before Sarkozy, it was unthinkable that the private sphere could intervene into political life in the Élysée Palace to such an extent.
Does he regret his behavior today? "I never look back," he replies, sitting on his Bauhaus sofa.
There is nothing he regrets? "All kinds of things," he replies. What, for example? "Of course, I could have done more," he says, beginning to sound bored, and feeling as though he were being treated unfairly. "For five years, I was accused of being too hyperactive," he says. And now, he adds, people say I didn't do enough.
He nods, looking aggrieved. When he looks at himself today, says Sarkozy, he only sees the head of the opposition, not the former president.
But who do the French see when they look back? The bling-bling president with Ray-Ban aviator sunglasses, whose watch, a Christmas present from his wife, cost more than 45,000 ($51,000)? The man who counts the country's richest and most powerful people among his closest friends -- and who, as president, often vacationed at their expense? For a long time, Sarkozy was considered the most unpopular president of all time, until another politician came along and accomplished the unbelievable feat of outdoing him: François Hollande. He too is one of the reasons Sarkozy is dreaming of the presidency once again.
His political intuition is another. As opposition leader, Sarkozy is now preaching unity within his party. It may sound banal, but it is no easy task. Even people who are not particularly fond of Sarkozy believe that he has done his job well so far. It is also his only chance: The better his party does, the more powerful he, as its chairman, becomes. Compared to the inner workings of the "Union pour un mouvement populaire," says a senior party official, what happens in the American series "House of Cards," is "cat piss."
"Together" is Sarkozy's current motto. And Sarkozy, the man who spent his entire life polarizing people, has repeated it so often in recent months that he now appears to believe it himself. He intends to rename the party "The Republicans" in late May. He now lunches frequently with his most powerful rivals -- such as Dominique de Villepin, a man he once hated so much that would have preferred to "hang him from a meat hook." Or his rival Juppé, who remains more popular in polls than Sarkozy.
'We Need to Change Politics'
Sarkozy is not just back in the public eye. He is, once again, almost everywhere. He expresses his opinion on the Armenian genocide and on the reorganization of local government. He wants to make French companies competitive once again, and he says that ancillary wage costs are too high and the tax burden on businesses is too oppressive. France must "leave mediocrity behind," he says.
Until his party presents a solid platform, he is primarily using variations on his earlier slogans, including: "Work more to earn more." He tweets that he would like to reestablish confidence in politics. "We need to change, and we need to change politics," he writes.
"Nicolas Sarkozy is still the same person, but he has learned new things," says Brice Hortefeux, who once served as interior minister under Sarkozy. Hortefeux, a tall, pale man, has known Sarkozy since 1976. He was the best man at his first wedding and is the godfather of his son Jean. Hortefeux sees the debt crisis and not his policies as the reason for Sarkozy's loss of the 2012 election. The hiatus from politics was good for Sarkozy, he says. He is now more patient, less ambitious and a better listener. And, more so than in the past, he has the public's interest in mind.
In early April, Sarkozy is visiting a vocational training center in Agnetz, in the Oise département. It is one of those events where members of the ruling Paris class demonstrate that they can also be close to the people, if need be.
When Sarkozy's black limousine arrives, a line of local officials and their wives are waiting to greet him. The men are dressed in dark suits and their wives are wearing a lot of jewelry and Hermès scarves. The small group, dressed to the nines, spends an hour and a half stomping through mortar, dust and bits of plaster, led by Sarkozy, wearing a black suit and a black tie. He watches trainees solder copper piping, skillfully examines a trowel and runs his hand over a freshly poured shower tray.
Kisses for the Women
He occasionally asks a question or slaps someone on the back. Despite the black suit, he strangely does not seem out of place. He is good with people, and he likes playing the familiar, down-to-earth role. He was always more of a "Nicolas" than a "Monsieur le Président." At the end of the visit, the trainees stand in line for selfies with Sarkozy.
After the tour, a television crew arrives to ask him some questions. "You know," he begins, but then he stops talking and walks across the lawn to an office building, where two women are leaning out a window, curious to see what is going on. "This temptation is one I couldn't resist," he says, and kisses them on the cheek. The women giggle gleefully.
A man in a gray suit reaches for the microphone. Businesses in France are doing more and more poorly, he says, and so are the people. "What do you intend to do so that things will improve for us?"
"Believe me," Sarkozy replies. "It is possible." With Sarkozy, the sequel.
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