Sarkozy down but not out

I’m in Crikey today on the troubles of former president Nicolas Sarkozy and what they might mean for French politics. I note the analogy with the way Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s campaign was derailed by rape charges in 2011, and suggest that there’s at least one important difference:

The difference is that while Strauss-Kahn was a runaway favorite among the Socialists until he ran into legal trouble, Sarkozy has always been regarded as a bit of a cuckoo in the UMP nest. Like Margaret Thatcher or Kevin Rudd, his colleagues tolerated him only as long as he looked a winner. Unless he can demonstrate revived electoral appeal, they will probably prefer a more conventional choice.

As sometimes happens, a sub-editor has made me more unequivocal than I really intended. The intro says that “there is one clear winner [from the investigation]: Francois Hollande.” But I’m not certain that’s true. It’s possible that the allegations of corruption will take Sarkozy out of the picture, and that in his absence the UMP will settle on a candidate more quickly and more harmoniously than they would if he was running.

Hollande, of course, will hope that that’s not the case. And as I say, given the state of the polls, for now “it seems to be about the only hope he’s got.”

One interesting aspect that I didn’t have space to talk about is the way that French politicians, especially but not exclusively from the centre-right, seem prone to this sort of legal trouble. Sarkozy’s predecessor, Jacques Chirac, served a two-year suspended sentence for corruption dating back to when he was mayor of Paris. Alain Juppé, Chirac’s first prime minister, was convicted of diverting public money to political purposes, although he also avoided jail time. Numerous middle-ranking politicians have been involved in similar scandals.

Yet there seems to be a degree of public tolerance for this sort of offence. Chirac was extremely unpopular at the end of his term of office, but now enjoys high approval ratings. Juppé’s rehabilitation has been even more dramatic: he became foreign minister in the latter part of Sarkozy’s term and is now one of the front-runners for the UMP presidential nomination.

So whereas in Australia one would say that an investigation like the one launched against Sarkozy would probably be fatal to a politician’s future career, in France that’s much less clear. And from Hollande’s point of view that’s probably not a bad thing: a Sarkozy who is damaged but not out of the running might do the most to disrupt things on the centre-right.


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