Jail sentence crushes Sarkozy’s presidential prospects

Les Républicains have lost their last-resort candidate for the 2022 presidential elections.

Jail sentence crushes Sarkozy’s presidential prospects

PARIS — Nicolas Sarkozy’s allies were hoping for a political comeback. Instead, they’ve been left reeling and clinging on to the hope that the former president might emerge vindicated from his latest legal battle. 

Sarkozy was sentenced Monday to three years in jail, two of them suspended, for trying to bribe a judge in exchange for information about an investigation into his 2007 campaign finances. Sarkozy has appealed but the process, which will take at least a year, makes his political future extremely uncertain.

Sarkozy has been dogged by legal issues for years but before Monday had never been found guilty of any misdemeanor. His allies had approached his latest court case with quiet optimism, telling journalists that the prosecution lacked any proof of corruption. 

Long-term friends and allies wanted to believe he was the conservative camp’s best hope for the 2022 presidential election, despite competition from other contenders.

“Nicolas Sarkozy was the only obvious candidate for the right,” his former Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux said. “But there will be twists and turns in the case, the road is not finished for him.”

Sarkozy officially retired from political life after losing the 2012 presidential election to François Hollande and a failed comeback in 2017. He has spent the last couple of years writing books and giving occasional interviews. But behind the scenes, he remained a key powerbroker on the right.

“Sarkozy plays an important role. He was the last president to come from the right, the most talented politician of his generation,” said Pierre-Henri Dumont, a conservative MP in the northern Pas-de-Calais district. “He was not actively involved in politics but he was there to mentor, to give advice.”

His supporters hoped he would do more than give tips on how to run the country, hinting that he might run for the top job again.  

The context helped that line of thinking. Four years after their latest presidential defeat, Les Républicains have so far failed to reinvent themselves and are still looking for the man or woman to lead the party. Polls have stubbornly put the current frontrunner Xavier Bertrand, president of the Hauts-de-France region, and Valérie Pécresse, president of the Paris region, arguably the strongest potential candidates among conservatives, behind both Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron in a presidential election. 

And so some turned to Sarkozy. With France facing great economic uncertainty, and with Macron criticized over his management of the coronavirus crisis, Sarkozy supporters hoped the French would welcome the comeback of a seasoned politician with a firm grip. 

“I’ve been struck by the unity of the political family, beyond the right even from the left and the far right. Nicolas Sarkozy is the one who unites us,” said Gilles Platret, a right-wing mayor, speaking on RFI after the ruling. “There has been a flow of messages supporting him.”

And maybe it was something Sarkozy had started believing too. 

“It was not completely clear that he could make a comeback,” said political analyst Bruno Cautrès. “He had made it clear politics was over, but in that way politicians say things are over while secretly wishing that someone is going to call and tell them to come back.”

Certainly, Sarkozy would have played a key role in choosing the next candidate for Les Républicains, a party that traditionally favors strong leaders. 

“He made the weather on the right … Some say Sarkozy can’t make a candidate out of you, but he can stop you,” said Cautrès.  

So what next for the party? In some ways it’s simpler now. 

Sarkozy’s judicial appeals process will take up until next year, giving him little time to return to politics. He is also facing another trial, starting this month, in which he is accused of overspending on his unsuccessful 2012 presidential campaign. And after former presidential hopeful François Fillon crashed out of the last election over fake jobs allegations, it’s unlikely the right will take the risk of backing Sarkozy. 

While other contenders likely wouldn’t have let Sarkozy back in so easily anyway, the decision clears the path for them.

“If it’s not Nicolas Sarkozy, then we’ll organize a selection process. Other candidates will run, and collectively, we would back the chosen one,” said Hortefeux.  

Officially the party is bound to organize primaries to select its next presidential candidate, something that will be scheduled after the regional elections in June.

But the party’s short experience organizing leadership elections has been traumatic, either splitting the party or binding it to unsuccessful candidates. 

Sarkozy might yet play a role, particularly when it comes to deciding whether to form an alliance with La République en Marche — he is reportedly on good terms with Macron.

“He’s been sidelined from the political game, but he hasn’t been removed from the political landscape. Maybe, on the contrary, it might make him more popular,” a Macron advisor who knows Sarkozy well said in Playbook Paris this morning. 

However, the ongoing court cases tie Sarkozy firmly to the past, to previous defeats, at a time when his party is desperately trying to reinvent itself.