Sarko's Comeback

The UMP and the Future of French Democracy

Sarkozy is greeted by well-wishers in Paris, November 29, 2014. Gonzalo Fuentes / Courtesy Reuters

Nicolas Sarkozy, who served as president of France from 2007 to 2012 before being defeated in a reelection bid by François Hollande, the current president, has just been elected head of the Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), the party he led before becoming president. Sarkozy hopes that the victory will give him a leg up in the battle to become France’s next president in 2017. He also hopes that it will help keep him out of jail. To understand how political ambitions and criminal investigations became so intimately intertwined and how the travails of the UMP will affect France’s position in Europe and the world, one needs to look back at Sarkozy’s fortunes since he left the presidency in May of 2012. 

Shortly after Sarkozy’s 2012 loss, he told an associate that he would “never come back by way of the UMP. It’s no longer on my level.” Having recently hobnobbed with heads of state, he found it difficult to imagine himself courting the votes of local party federations in sleepy provincial towns. Rather, he viewed himself as a respected statesman honored for brilliant performances on the world stage—an image that many in France found hard to square with the pugnacious political scrapper they saw daily on their TV screens. And soon, leaked reports about investigations into his possible involvement in campaign financing irregularities and obstruction of justice proved the broader view more correct.

In fact, the UMP leadership post is open only because its previous occupant, Jean-François Copé, was ousted when it was revealed that the party had helped Sarkozy’s political machine circumvent campaign-spending rules in 2012. The wittily named consulting firm Bygmalion, which staged the candidate’s rallies, issued false invoices for services ostensibly unrelated to the campaign, the payment of which the party treasurer duly authorized. In that way, Sarkozy stayed under the ceiling for permissible campaign spending. Both Copé and Sarkozy deny any knowledge of this scheme, and Sarkozy denies ever having heard

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