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POLITICS

‘Only a court can stop a Sarkozy comeback’

Speculation has flourished in recent weeks that former President Nicolas Sarkozy will run for presidency in 2017. The Local asks political author Neila Latrous whether a Sarko return is really on the cards.

'Only a court can stop a Sarkozy comeback'
Photo: AFP

Nicolas Sarkozy has kept a low profile since being unceremoniously kicked out of office last May, but that has not stifled the coverage given to him in the French press. Every week, the man nicknamed 'Sarko' appears in the news as a former political ally evokes the idea of a comeback, or a poll is published revealing how desperate his supporters want him back.

Last week, former Prime Minister Alain Juppé became the latest high profile politician to suggest that Sarkozy will make a dramatic bid to reclaim his place in the Elysée Palace in the 2017 presidential elections.

But can the man who once riled the French with his 'bling bling' style really make a comeback and wrestle the presidency out of the hands of François Hollande? French journalist Neila Latrous, co-author of "The UMP a merciless world"  thinks so.

Can Sarkozy really make a comeback in 2017?

“It’s a real possibility and I think it will happen. He is young, only 58 years old and there is a real nostalgia around Sarkozy, which can be seen in the publication of these polls. A recent survey revealed 75 percent of those people who voted for him in the last election want him to come back.

Why is there such a strong feeling for him among his supporters on the right?

Those on the right never understood why Sarkozy was defeated in the last election.  They say it was not a real defeat. They believe there was a conspiracy against him, led by the media. For his supporters he has unfinished business with the French people. They think he was in the process of reforming France and that the country was in a stronger position on the international scene, with Sarkozy in charge. Five years was just not enough for them. They think he can come back and beat Hollande.

Is there enough support within his own party?

Obviously, potential presidential candidates like François Fillon and [current UMP leader] Jean François Copé would not want to see him back running for the presidency, but he has plenty of support across the party. There is also the group Les Amis de Nicolas Sarkozy, which was set up by his allies. I don’t know if they are plotting how to get him back into politics, but they will provide a launch pad for him when he returns. The most important thing you need to run a campaign for the presidency is money, so Les Amis de Sarkozy will act as a way of finding financial resources for a Sarkozy campaign.

There is also the fact the UMP party does not have any real leader after the bitter leadership battle between Jean François Copé and François Fillon last autumn. The re-run of their election in the autumn of this year will be a sham. There’s no one at the UMP who can possible replace Sarkozy, so that presents him with a chance.

Sarkozy's 'bling bling' image did not endear him to French voters – won’t this be the same in 2017?

It’s true that this could be a handicap for him, but one of his close advisors told me they are working on this problem. They want to try and make his relationship with the French people less impassioned, and their aim is to build up his image and create a more reasonable relationship between him and the French public.

When will the comeback happen and how?

I think if he wants to come back then he must do it between March 2014 – after the municipal election – and before autumn 2016, when the right will hold primaries for the presidential elections. A lot will depend on the municipal elections. If it’s the worst case scenario for the UMP — for example, if they lose key councils, their candidate is not elected mayor of Paris, and if some politicians make agreements with the National Front — then Sarkozy could come back before 2017. It will likely start with him appearing on TV shows, saying how much he misses leading the French people and leading the government. 

What about the impact of legal cases that Sarkozy is implicated in, like the Bettencourt scandal and the Karachi affair?

Well, I spoke recently to one of his close advisors, who has said that only the courts can stop him from coming back. Sarkozy has to wait for these legal cases to be solved. What the advisor fears most is that cases like the Bettencourt one will run on and on and will not be decided before the elections.

And does he actually stand a chance of winning the election?

Well, a lot will depend on the economy. If there is high unemployment and François Hollande has not delivered everything he promised during his presidential campaign, then yes, Sarkozy can win. With the current crisis and rising unemployment levels, people might start to think that things weren't so bad under Nicolas Sarkozy, and not everything was his fault. Also, the policies of François Hollande have not been markedly different to those of Sarkozy, so there is a certain amount of disappointment with Hollande, which will help the former president.

Neila Latrous co-authored the book "UMP a merciless world with Jean-Baptiste Marteau. The pair also wrote "Tragic dance at the UMP" about the bitter battle between François Fillon and Copé.

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POLITICS

Macron restarts reform drive as opponents prepare for battle

French President Emmanuel Macron will get a taste of public resistance to his second-term reform agenda this week during the first nationwide strike called since his re-election in April.

Macron restarts reform drive as opponents prepare for battle

The 44-year-old head of state has pledged to push ahead with raising the retirement age having backed away from the explosive issue during his first five years in power.

But having lost his parliamentary majority in June, the pro-business centrist faces severe difficulties passing legislation, while galloping inflation is souring the national mood.

Despite warnings from allies about the risk of failure, Macron has tasked his government with hiking the retirement age to 64 or 65 from 62 currently, with changes to start taking effect next year.

“I’m not pre-empting what the government and the parliament will do, but I’m convinced it’s a necessity,” Macron told the BFM news channel last Thursday.

With deficits spiralling and public debt at historic highs, the former investment banker argues that raising the retirement age and getting more people into jobs are the only ways the state can raise revenue without
increasing taxes.

On Thursday, France’s far-left CGT union, backed by left-wing political parties, has organised a national day of strikes, the opening shot in what is expected to be a months-long tussle.

Though the protests were originally planned to demand wage increases, they are now intended to signal broad opposition to the government’s plans.

“We’re against the raising of the retirement age,” Philippe Martinez, the head of the CGT, told the LCI broadcaster last week. “The government’s arguments don’t stack up.”   

Unpopular

Public opinion towards pension reform and the strikes is likely to be decisive in determining whether Macron succeeds with a reform he called off in 2020 in the face of protests and Covid-19.

An opinion poll last week from the Odoxa group found that 55 percent of respondents did not want the reform and 67 percent said they were ready to support protests against it.

But a separate survey from the Elabe group gave a more nuanced picture. It also found that only a minority, 21 percent, wanted the retirement age increased, but a total of 56 percent thought the current system no longer worked and 60 percent thought it was financially unsustainable.

“I don’t know anyone who wants to work for longer, but I don’t know anyone who thinks they are not going to work for longer,” a minister close to Macron told AFP last week on condition of anonymity.

“Maybe I’m mistaken but I’m not sure that the turnout will be as large as the unions and LFI are hoping for,” he said, referring to the hard-left France Unbowed (LFI) political party that has backed the strikes.

The second decisive factor will be how the government introduces the reform in parliament where Macron’s allies are around 40 seats short of a majority.

Some favour slipping it into a social security budget bill that will be voted on in October — a stealthy move that will be denounced as under-handed by critics.

Others think more time should be taken for consultations with trade unions and opposition parties, even though they have all ruled out working with the government.

Macron prefers the quicker option, one senior MP told AFP on condition of anonymity.

In both scenarios, observers expect the government to resort to a controversial constitutional mechanism called “article 49.3” that allows the executive to ram legislation through the national assembly without a vote.

If opposition parties unite against the measure or call a no-confidence motion in the government, they could trigger new elections.

The reform was “ballsy but dangerous,” one ally told French media last week.

Macron II

Success with the pension reform and separate changes to the unemployment benefits system will help the president re-launch his image as a reformer, experts say.

Since winning a historic second term in April, he has been caught up in the Ukraine war crisis amid reports the parliamentary election setback in June left him disoriented and even depressed.

“We’ve slightly lost the narrative of Macronism,” political scientist Bruno Cautres, a researcher at Sciences Po university in Paris, told AFP recently.

The challenge was giving the second term a “direction” and showing “how it builds on the results of the first”, he said.

“The essence of Macronism, which does not have a long history, is the leader and the programme,” added Benjamin Morel from Paris II university.

Since being elected as France’s youngest-ever president in 2017, Macron has made overhauling social security and workplace regulation part of his political DNA.

“Emmanuel Macron can’t easily back away from a reform because burying a reform, it’s like disavowing himself,” Morel said.

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