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Sarkozy’s pain is the National Front’s gain

How France’s political scandals play into the hands of the extreme right

July 10, 2014 6:00AM ET

On Tuesday July 1, at 8 a.m., former French President Nicolas Sarkozy was taken into custody without a lawyer for 15 straight hours of questioning by the judicial police, a stringent legal procedure applied for the first time in French history to a former president. At 2 a.m. on Wednesday, he was transferred to the financial investigation unit in Nanterre, where he was charged with “active corruption,” “active influence-peddling” and “possession of illegally obtained professional secret” for having allegedly sought out confidential information on a pending case he is involved in from a magistrate of the court in exchange for a possible career boost.  

This is probably the most shocking French political news since Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s 2011 arrest on sexual assault charges ruined his shot at the presidency. But Sarkozy’s indictment is bad news not just for him, his ailing Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) party and his supporters: It’s also bad news for French democracy. As his political scandals spread, Sarkozy’s judicial embattlement adds fuel to a populist fire that has grown alarmingly strong over the past two years. When a former president defends himself against corruption charges by launching an attack against the judicial and executive branches at large, as Sarkozy has, no one wins but those who benefit from citizens’ declining trust in the political process. In this case, it is the extreme right that stands to profit.

Off script

A high-profile arrest was probably not how Sarkozy had envisioned his triumphant return to the public stage. After he lost the presidential race to François Hollande in 2012, Sarkozy had declared in a rare moment of restraint and humility that he was retiring from political life. Since then, he’s acted uncharacteristically low-key, sporting a fashionable five-o’clock beard and quietly following his wife, singer Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, on her tour to promote her latest album — an unusual silence cure for the talkative ex-lawyer. He had ostensibly planned to sail through Hollande’s abysmal presidency untainted, gliding high above petty cutthroat politics to land safely as the calm, uniting, reassuring savior of a nation in distress for the 2017 presidential election. But since the news of his arrest broke on Tuesday, this grand redemption narrative has veered off script, and none of the likely outcomes to the new scenario are weighted in Sarkozy’s favor.  

Sarkozy’s blatant hypocrisy hardly helped his case in the court of public opinion, but it did validate the populist rhetoric of Marine Le Pen.

If he is convicted, Sarkozy could be sentenced to up to 10 years of prison, fined 500,000 euros and deprived of his civic rights, including the right to run for office. But even if he is cleared from all charges, as he was in a former inquiry into alleged cash contributions by L’Oréal heiress Liliane Bettencourt, he is still not off the hook: His name appears in at least six other open investigations, including one that probes whether Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi contributed to his 2007 campaign illegally. 

Sulfurous trail

This sulfurous trail would presumably hinder Sarkozy’s hopes for a political bid in 2017 — were it not for the sustained support the ex-president enjoys within his party. A BVA opinion poll on July 4 revealed that 78 percent of UMP supporters want “Nicolas” to run for office in 2017 (84 percent think he will). Now that the UMP has opted to use primaries to designate its next presidential candidate, this visceral attachment of the core of the party to their charismatic leader almost guarantees that he will have his way.

The rest of the country is not that hot about a Sarkozy ticket: In the same survey, 65 percent of respondents overall were against his comeback in the next presidential race. Yet even they had no illusion about Sarkozy’s thirst for power and ability to bulldoze his way into the elections: 70 percent predicted that he will be a candidate, in spite of the indictment.

On Wednesday, Sarkozy broke his two-year media fast to go on the offensive. He secured 20 minutes of prime time television to circumvent the judiciary’s claims and “tell the French people how the judicial system is being used for political means” against him. Summoning all the self-control he could muster to contain his visible rage, he accused the judges and the Hollande administration of political payback. In a typical case of role reversal, the accused — now clean-shaven — became the accuser. Not only did Sarkozy plead innocent, but he played the victim, invoking unfair treatment, overreaching, wiretapping, politically motivated judicial harassment and governmental mingling into the legal process. He spat back at his adversaries what he himself is being accused of. He framed his case as a supposed violation of the separation of powers at the core of modern democracies: the divide between the executive and the judicial branches of government. All these arguments were torn into pieces the next day in the press. But the damage is done. If it was even possible for the French political elite to fall into further disgrace, Sarkozy gave them the final blow. 

Modern democracy

The blatant hypocrisy on display hardly helped Sarkozy’s case in the court of public opinion, but it did validate the populist rhetoric of Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right National Front (FN) party. Either way, judges and politicians look corrupt, and the FN comes off looking squeaky clean in comparison. By calling into question the very institutions he was supposed to uphold as president, Sarkozy plays right into Le Pen’s game and gives her all the ammunition she needs to smear the political establishment she seeks to replace.

The drama surrounding the corruption charges against Sarkozy is obscuring an even more damning issue in French politics: a dangerous focus on the personalities running for power and a dearth of ideas from the political left and right alike. With record low approval ratings hovering around 18 percent, incumbent Hollande is viewed by many in his own camp as a liability for the 2017 race. The two governing parties are thus wasting precious intellectual energy wondering about who will run, rather than what platform that person will have to offer.

Meanwhile, Le Pen, who received an incredible 25 percent of the votes in the European elections in May, is rallying her troops to mobilize for 2017. The worst-case — and most likely — scenario right now will have both Sarkozy and Hollande run in 2017. This will make at least one person very happy: Le Pen, who will have her best shot ever at landing second, or even first, and advancing her anti-immigration, anti-Europe agenda further on the national stage.

In 2002, Marine’s father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, surprised the French people by arriving second in the first round of the presidential elections. In the second round 15 days later, 82 percent of the electorate rallied willy-nilly around the candidacy of Jacques Chirac to bar Le Pen from the highest office. At the time his xenophobic, anti-Semitic, authoritarian personality reminded France of its darkest past. This time around, Marine Le Pen might not only compete in the second round — with her promises to give French nationals priority for jobs, housing and benefits and to reclaim France’s political and cultural sovereignty, she could very well win. 

Cécile Alduy is an associate professor of French at Stanford University and author of "Marine Le Pen's Words: Decoding the New National Front Discourse."

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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