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 of Bygmalion before the allegations broke, but his assistant campaign manager, Jérôme Lavrilleux, was expelled from the UMP after admitting his role in the operation.

Following Copé’s ouster, the UMP provisionally placed itself under a triumvirate of former prime ministers: Alain Juppé, François Fillon, and Jean-Pierre Raffarin. Sarkozy rightly saw them as a threat to his comeback plans; both Juppé and Fillon intend to run for president themselves. UMP statutes stipulate that the party’s 2017 candidate will be chosen by a primary, but the rules governing that election remain undecided, and Sarkozy did not want his potential rivals in charge of drafting them. It thus became clear to him that his only path to the presidency was to regain control of the party.

Sarkozy’s comeback was not the triumphant return he had hoped for. In the end, he won the leadership contest with only 62 percent of the vote, compared with 85 percent when he was elected party head in 2004. His score was held down by the surprisingly good showing of Bruno Le Maire, a deputy from Eure who served as agriculture minister under Sarkozy. Le Maire, who at age 45 represents a new generation of UMP leaders, campaigned energetically for the post. Sarkozy responded by presenting himself as the old warrior, tired of politics, who nevertheless could not stand to see his country humiliated by the deeply unpopular Hollande and who would therefore sacrifice his private comforts for the rigors of office. But Le Maire’s surprisingly spirited opposition forced Sarkozy to revert to his familiar role of political scrapper.

Now, with Le Maire narrowly defeated, Sarkozy has a new threat to deal with. Juppé, who served as prime minister under Jacques Chirac and as foreign minister under Sarkozy, is one of France’s most experienced statesmen. His longstanding presidential ambitions suffered two major setbacks, however. In 1995, he proposed a major overhaul of the French pension system, triggering a general strike that paralyzed the country for a month and eventually forced Chirac to “cohabit” for five years with a socialist government led by Lionel Jospin. Later, he was convicted for his part in a scheme that channeled money from fake jobs on the books of the city of Paris into the coffers of Chirac’s UMP. He received a 14-month suspended sentence and was barred from seeking political office for a year. After a period of exile spent teaching in Canada, Juppé re-launched his political career and was elected mayor of Bordeaux in 2006. His goal now is to become the UMP candidate of the “republican right”—that is, of voters on the right who have not succumbed to the appeal of Marine Le Pen’s National Front.

Juppé is more acceptable to centrist voters than Sarkozy, who has moved ever closer to the National Front in recent years. With the Socialist Party in disarray owing to widespread disillusionment with Hollande, whose approval rating of 13 percent is the lowest ever recorded in the history of the Fifth Republic, the candidate of the left in 2017 may well be weak. This may well transpire even if it is someone other than Hollande, whose failures not only cost his party many of its most-important bastions in local and regional government, but also severely depressed its morale. Many observers expect the second round of the 2017 election to be a contest between the candidate of the republican right and Le Pen. Therefore, a candidate’s ability to attract votes from the left and center could well be the deciding factor. In this respect, Juppé is widely believed to be a stronger candidate than Sarkozy, something the latest polls confirm. But Juppé is not popular with the UMP base, and his ability to win the party primary remains in doubt.

Hence the courts may well play a deciding role in the choice of the next president. If the investigating magistrates vigorously pursue numerous charges against Sarkozy, the former president may find himself in serious difficulty despite his renewed grip on the party leadership. For example, investigators are in possession of a recorded phone call between former State Attorney Gilbert Azibert and his wife, in which she castigates him for “getting mixed up in that dirty business with Sarkozy. You would have done better to stay away from that Sarko, I told you so at the time.” To which the harried husband responds, “Hold on there. I think my phone is tapped.” The allegation is that Sarkozy offered to help Azibert find a plum pre-retirement job in Monaco in exchange for his help in monitoring the progress of an investigation of illegal solicitation of campaign contributions from Liliane Bettencourt, France’s wealthiest woman. 

To complicate matters further, another potential presidential rival, Fillon, who served as prime minister throughout all five years of Sarkozy’s presidency, has been accused of encouraging Hollande’s Chief of Staff Jean-Pierre Jouyet (who also served as secretary of state for European affairs under Sarkozy), to “strike quickly” in the investigation of the Bygmalion scandal. Fillon denies the allegation, which was first revealed by two Le Monde reporters who had recorded Jouyet’s account of a lunch with Fillon last June. Sarkozy’s supporters have seized on this charge as evidence of a conspiracy between their man’s rivals in his own party and the governing Socialist Party. More ominously, Le Pen points to the now notorious lunch as confirmation that there is little difference between the two mainstream parties, which, combining their initials PS and UMP, she derides as “the UMPS.”

Le Pen’s reaction points to the wider implications of the UMP’s travails. The French party system is in total disarray. The Socialist Party still holds the all-important presidency, but its once-solid majority in the National Assembly is vulnerable. Many in the left-wing are unhappy with the tax increases and spending cuts that Hollande and Prime Minister Manuel Valls have been forced to implement in order to ward off sanctions by the European Commission for violating budgetary norms to which France has agreed. And severe losses in recent municipal elections have deprived the Socialist Party of numerous local bastions. Meanwhile, the Greens, who once formed part of a governing coalition with the socialists, walked out to protest the Hollande-Valls reforms, and Valls himself dismissed three former ministers of his own party who had publicly denounced his initiatives. 

With Sarkozy facing potential competition for his party’s presidential nomination from Juppé, he will be forced to shore up his support on the right by appealing to National Front supporters, as he attempted to do in 2012. This will likely mean calling for tighter restrictions on immigration and offering more overt criticism of the ways in which France’s commitments to the European Union limit French sovereignty, particularly in economic matters. As president, Sarkozy was a staunch Europeanist, but Le Pen’s attacks on the EU and calls for France to withdraw from the euro and impose protective tariffs have proved popular, to the point where her party is now polling ahead of both the Socialists and the UMP in recent national surveys. Sarkozy’s position on Europe could well shift toward Le Pen’s in his drive to differentiate himself from Juppé and reclaim voters lost to the far right.

It is too early to say whether such a shift will imply weakened French support for the EU in the future. If Sarkozy becomes the UMP candidate in 2017, he may well tack in an anti-EU direction before the first round of voting, then veer back toward the center before the second. Throughout his career, he has shown himself to be adept at changing his ideological stripes as needed. But euroskeptic sentiment is on the rise everywhere in Europe, in part for good reason, and even a brief flirtation with neo-protectionist thinking by a mainstream French party could prove damaging to the European project—and France—in the long run.

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  • ARTHUR GOLDHAMMER is an American academic and translator based at the Center for European Studies at Harvard.
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