Sarkozy seen as campaign trail liability in French regional elections
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Just ahead of the second round of voting in France’s regional elections on Sunday, Nicolas Sarkozy, leader of the conservative Les Républicains party, has been conspicuously absent from the campaign trail.
Although Les Républicains (formerly the UMP) are in tight contest with the far-right National Front (FN) and Socialist Party for control in a number of regions, the former president has been a rare sight at campaign events.
Since the first round of voting last Sunday, he has attended only two rallies: one in Corsica, the other in the western Aquitaine-Limousin-Poitou-Charentes region.
Although he was once considered an indispensible asset, it now appears that a number of Les Républicains candidates see Sarkozy as a liability.
Perhaps the most flagrant example has been Xavier Bertrand, who is running against FN leader Marine Le Pen in the northern region of Nord-Pas-de-Calais-Picardie.
“If only they would be quiet, damn it!” Bertrand said on Wednesday, in reference to Sarkozy and other Les Républicains heavyweights. “I wanted this campaign to be local … I want to have a free hand and only be accountable to the region’s 6 million inhabitants, not to the party leadership.”
“[They] should do more work and less talking in Paris. We’re the ones getting yelled at on the ground. If only they would leave us in peace!” he added.
Bertrand’s rant came after Sarkozy stated earlier in the week that a vote for the FN was essentially “the same thing” as a vote for the Socialist Party, adding that “it is irresponsible to vote for the FN”.
Bertrand, who is trailing Le Pen in the polls, is counting heavily on support from the left to win the election after the Socialist Party withdrew its candidate in Nord-Pas-de-Calais-Picardie in the wake of last Sunday’s polls.
A shift in strategy
Sarkozy’s absence from the campaign trail is all the more glaring given how much time he spent crisscrossing the country for his party’s candidates in the run-up to the first round.
According to French politics expert Olivier Rouquan, the sudden shift in strategy is in part due to the FN’s strong performance in last week’s vote.
“There’s now a desire on behalf of regional leaders to tell voters: ‘We are close to you, we’re listening to you. We’re far from the partisan politics and the national leaders.’ It’s a strategy that the FN has adopted since the beginning,” he told FRANCE 24.
Among those who have sought to distance themselves from Les Républicains’ leadership is Valérie Pécresse, who is running neck-and-neck with the Socialist Party’s Claude Bartolone in the Ile-de-France region.
“My party’s president isn’t the one who’s running,” Pécresse told France’s iTELE in response to a question on whether Sarkozy had been “blacklisted” at her campaign events.
She went on to add she had no intention of being seen standing next to “Alain Juppé, François Fillon, Bruno Le Maire or any other [Les Républicains] heavyweights.”
‘We prefer to campaign on the grassroots level’
Pécresse’s campaign wasn’t always so opposed to being associated with the party leadership. In the weeks leading up to the first round of voting, there was even talk of Sarkozy taking part in an event for Pécresse in the western Paris suburb of Issy-les-Moulineaux.
But as the vote drew nearer, her campaign began to distance itself from the idea. “Our decision will be based on the political climate as well as the results of the first round,” a source close to Pécresse told French daily Le Monde.
The party leader's absence at Wednesday's rally for Pécresse would seem to indicate how that decision went.
The leader of the Les Républicains was nowhere to be seen in the eastern region of Bourgogne-Franche-Comté, where his party is trailing the FN. Nor has he been invited to campaign in the Grand-Est or Rhône-Alpes-Auvergne regions. The same goes for Brittany, a Socialist Party stronghold in the west of France, where the candidate for Les Républicains said that he has never sought Sarkozy’s backing.
Mr. Sarkozy has even been shunned in the southern region of Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur, where one of his most loyal supporters, Christian Estrosi, is locked in a tight race against Le Pen’s niece, Marion Maréchal-Le Pen.
“We prefer to campaign on the grassroots level,” a source close to Estrosi told France Info radio.