Facing election shipwreck, Sarkozy 'friends' rise up
With the right-wing UMP party predicted to lose upcoming parliamentary elections, former interior minister Brice Hortefeux (pictured left) and other French conservatives are embracing recently departed president Nicolas Sarkozy.
As conservative leaders in France contemplate a likely defeat in parliamentary elections in June, some among them have rallied around an unlikely figure: defeated former president Nicolas Sarkozy.
The Friends of Nicolas Sarkozy Association was formally established in Paris on Wednesday, fuelling ongoing speculation about the uncertain future of France’s political right. Sarkozy, who lost the May 6 presidential runoff to Socialist rival François Hollande, repeated before and after the vote that he would quit politics if he was defeated.
According to a statement prepared for the press, the mission of the new organisation includes being “vigilant to the way the [Sarkozy] record while in office is represented in public discourse,” and “upholding the ideas and values that he defended during his mandate.”
Brice Hortefeux, a former interior minister under Sarkozy and the head of the new group, told reporters that the former president’s friends would gather in a congenial spirit, and that they did not intend to weigh in on UMP party politics.
The former president has in fact limited his public appearances to a minimum even as his right-wing UMP party faces an uphill campaign to maintain its majority in the lower-house National Assembly.
However, the strangely timed launch – less than two weeks ahead of the legislative vote and amid media reports of an internal UMP war of succession – made observers wonder if many in Sarkozy’s party are hoping to head off an eventual fraction within their camp.
The UMP party could hit a historic bottom if it loses the parliamentary poll this spring. The Right lost control of the French Senate for the first time since World War Two in September 2011 elections. It is now forecast to concede its majority in the more important National Assembly for the first time in a decade.
A May 29 opinion study by Ipsos / Logica Business Consulting, a French polling firm, says Socialist Party candidates and their allies on the left are on pace to win 45 percent of first-round votes on June 10, compared to less than 35 percent for their UMP rivals.
According to Olivier Rouquan, a political science professor and researcher at Paris 2 University, many in the UMP ranks are already preparing for defeat. “Their attitude and declarations indicate that they think they will lose the election,” said Rouquan.
The French academic believes that those behind the Friends of Sarkozy initiative are betting that Sarkozy’s tenure would be the most valuable political capital to help them rebound politically, even if it was a questionable wager.
“It is difficult to imagine that Sarkozy’s credibility can be exploited so soon among voters. The presidential election expressed a rejection of Sarkozy,” he told FRANCE 24.
Life after Sarkozy
The Friends of Sarkozy counts a handful of former ministers whose political careers may be heading toward dark days, including Sarkozy’s last interior minister Claude Guéant and former professional training minister Nadine Morano.
However, UMP party chief Jean-François Copé, former prime minister François Fillon and former foreign minister Alain Juppé were notably absent. The three party heavyweights are all tipped to replace Sarkozy at the head of the UMP table, and there is some concern that their struggle will divide the party.
Prodded by the press about the group’s possible ulterior aims, MP Christian Estrosi, also a former junior minister, said he thought Sarkozy “was destined to be the best unifying factor” for his party. Several other members said they personally wished to see Sarkozy return to politics.
Olivier Rouquan does not think the UMP will implode as many observers have suggested, but cited the new organisation as an example of the internal party tensions rising to the forefront.
“The message of the [Sarkozy] friends group, implicit or explicit, is that Nicolas Sarkozy is the only person capable of keeping the party united. At least for the near future his charisma and his executive experience will continue to impose itself on the party,” Rouquan said.