Seven years after he was elected President of France, Nicolas Sarkozy retains an incredible power to create discussion. On Wednesday night, he attracted almost 4,000 militants to a ‘meeting’ in Toulouse. On a warm evening at the large Salle Jean Mermoz on Île du Grand Ramier in the middle of the Garonne supporters of all ages queued outside, opposite the stadium of Toulouse F.C. and a few Front National protesters. The large hall inside was packed and stuffy.
Sarkozy is running for the presidency of the UMP with a barely concealed desire to be the UMP candidate in the 2017 French presidential elections. The meeting was billed as a question-answer session, although over the 90 minutes or so during which Sarkozy spoke there were only a handful of questions and for each one Sarkozy would launch off down multiple paths wherever he felt like going. No question was asked about the various corruption allegations swirling around him.
He spoke for the whole evening sat from a chair at the front of the stage. His husky voice was accompanied by firm hand gestures cutting, slicing and darting through the air. When he reached a crucial part of his answer he would start to enunciate every syllable, the trigger for warm applause from the audience.
Sarkozy was laying out a French presidential bid
Sarkozy did speak about the UMP: for example he want it to become a patriotic mass movement with no sectional interests. However most of the evening was spent discussing his analysis of France: what has gone wrong and how he would fix it. Sarkozy presented himself in the mould of de Gaulle as the noble statesman selflessly returning to rescue la France en crise. France is “humiliated” and Sarkozy brought up the theme of lost grandeur repeatedly: the prospect of the French budget being rejected by the UK; and Paris, “the most beautiful city in the world”, lagging behind other world cities in recent architecture projects.
Sarkozy pitched himself firmly within the mainstream right, discussing typical centre-right pledges: toughness on crime, encouraging harder work, recognising the importance of family. There was little mention of Europe or immigration, the anti-globalisation issues that Marine Le Pen deftly exploits just like Nigel Farage does in the UK.
In terms of the crisis “The problem is not with those who work,” Sarkozy said, “it is with those who don’t work”. He triangulated the issue of how many ours in the working week to present himself as the practical moderate against the ideologues of left and right. Sarkozy would get rid of the 35-hour week law but leave it up to businesses to choose whether to opt out of the system or stay in. Elsewhere he would take the tax off overtime and reduce the number of teachers but 30% but increase their pay by 30%. Hardly an all-encompassing plan of economic reform but it seemed to push the right buttons for the audience.
During Hollande’s presidency France has been experiencing a culture war about gay rights vs. traditional value. La Manif pour Tous opposes same-sex marriage and the idea of a gay couple having children (the name is a play on Marriage pour tous). There were a few Manif pour Tous flags flying around Sarkozy put himself on the side of ‘family’.
The Sarkozy Show
Sarkozy attracts a circus. I got the impression much of the crowd were sympathisers who came to see the show, like the man who told me “it’s not a meeting, it’s a concert”. Sarkozy was announced onto the stage like a boxer is announced into the ring. The audience broke out into chanting Ni-co-las at the beginning and at various points throughout the evening.
Hollande beat Sarkozy in the 2012 elections while stressing his difference to Monsieur Bling Bling, the celebrity Sarkozy who loved the limelight. Hollande’s Monsieur Normal act has been hindered by an affair with an actress and subsequently an acrimonious split with partner Valérie Trierweiler, who wrote a book attacking Hollande which has become the best-selling book since 50 Shades of Grey.
With an anti-politics mood engulfing the country and an incredibly hapless-looking President, it is not hard to see the appeal of the energetic Monsieur Sarkozy, rather like Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage in the United Kingdom.
Overall however, unlike other European populists Sarkozy does not have the shield of lack of accountability. The overriding question in this question-answer session was unasked and unanswered. It is implausible for Sarkozy to imagine all of France’s problems result from Hollande’s administration over the past last two and a half year. Therefore why would Sarkozy’s measures work a second time around if they didn’t the first?