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How Sarkozy misread the mood of France’s conservative voters

Ian Langsdon, AFP | Former president Nicolas Sakorzy conceded defeat in the first round of France’s conservative presidential primaries on November 20, 2016

Members of France’s opposition conservative Les Républicans party are caught up in a bitter debate over the soul of the party as they pick their presidential nominee for the 2017 poll, but party leader Nicolas Sarkozy is now out of the conversation.


Sarkozy, who was France’s president from 2007 to 2012, hoped to storm back into the Elysée Palace next spring, but saw his hopes of a comeback crushed at the first hurdle as results for the conservative primary trickled in on Sunday night.

He was knocked out in the first round, managing to garner only 20 percent of the vote. To add insult to injury, he finished far behind his own former prime minister, François Fillon (44 percent), and former French PM and current Bordeaux Mayor Alain Juppé (29 percent).

In his concession speech Sarkozy backed Fillon -- who is seen as a more hardline conservative than moderate Juppé -- whose landslide victory on Sunday sent shock waves through the political establishment.

Sarkozy’s supporters -- who had watched their candidate come back from retirement three years ago, reclaim the leadership of the faltering Les Républicans [formerly UMP] party and plot his return to the Elysée Palace -- were left astonished and wondering what went wrong.

Old ghosts

“Sarkozy and his supporters had a crash-landing,” columnist Hervé Favre wrote in La Voix du Nord regional newspaper, arguing that the large rallies during the campaign and his best-selling book had blinded them to his widespread unpopularity, even among right-wing voters.

Indeed, his brash style and unrestrained self-confidence were viewed as an asset by Sarkozy’s backers, but in reality this made him one of least popular French presidents in history.

He clearly did hear his critics and toned down his infamous “bling-bling” image for the presidential primary, but it was not enough.

“Nicolas Sarkozy has always provoked violent reactions,” Stéphane Zumsteeg, a political analyst at the French polling firm Ipsos told Le Parisien newspaper on Monday. “Part of the problem is his personality, but also because many blame him for not keeping his promises when he was in office.”

Voters may also have been turned off by the string of legal troubles that have hounded Sarkozy since he left office.

During the campaign, he dismissed the various accusations levelled against him, calling them little more than a political witch hunt.

However, many considered it unfinished business.

Three years ago, Sarkozy became the first former head of state to be taken in for questioning when he was charged with corruption, influence peddling and violating legal secrecy.

During the campaign, accusations resurfaced that he took vast sums of money from the late Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi to finance his failed re-election bid in 2007. But in potentially the most damming case of all, he stands accused of conspiring to give a magistrate a lucrative job in exchange for insider information.

Past strategy backfires

Sarkozy’s first bid for the presidency was largely successful due to his ability to woo voters from the far-right, co-opting the rhetoric of National Front leaders Jean Marie Le Pen and his daughter Marine.

He deployed a similar strategy for the primary. He even claimed that when someone becomes French their "ancestor are the Gauls", and insisted he would wage a tireless war against Muslim “barbarians”.

But this time it backfired.

“Speeding like a crazy motorist in the right-hand lane, Nicolas Sarkozy repeated his verbal provocations at rallies, but to no avail,” Laurent Joffrin wrote in the left-leaning newspaper Libération.

This analysis was shared by Ipsos’ Zumsteeg: “He never tried to bring conservative constituents together. Instead, he chose to ride a populist wave (invoking the Gauls) which turns off many right-wing voters, as well as older voters.”

End of an era?

Admitting defeat on Sunday night, Sarkozy was poised and indicated that he would slip back into retirement.

“It is now time for me to lead a life of more private, than public passions. Good luck to France and to all of you,” he said, prompting rousing applause from his supporters.

It was not the first concession speech from the man who famously pledged back in 2012 that "you won't hear from me anymore", and many are wondering if he really means it this time.

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