At the Café de l’Europe they don’t see much of Nicolas Sarkozy, the ex-president of France. His Paris offices are just across the street on Rue Miromesnil, about a five-minute walk from the Elysée Palace he occupied for five years. But “Sarko” doesn’t smoke, so he’s definitely not part of the post-lunch crowd queuing up for packs of cigarettes. And he doesn’t drink, so he doesn’t stop in for an aperitif.
Sarkozy doesn’t even drop by for coffee. But a lot of his former minions and ministers do, and so do members of the press trying to glean details of the one-term head of state’s plans for a comeback in presidential elections that are, yes, still more than three years away.
A regular at the café calls Sarkozy “the neighbor,” with an exasperated puff of her cheeks. “He came over here once when he opened his office, and he came again six months later to apologize,” she said. Why was that? “The crowds,” she said. “There are journalists, cameras, microphones—there are people who are a little crazy who come here to ‘ask him a question,’” she said. “Ah, what a neighbor.”
It’s a measure of the ennui generated by the current president, François Hollande, that Sarkozy’s undeniable—and undenied—ambition to win back the Elysée is drawing such attention only a year and a half after he suffered a decisive defeat.
These are times of torpor in Paris, politically as well as economically. Hollande’s approval ratings are flirting with 20 percent. They’re the lowest in the history of France’s opinion polls. And many people miss the spectacle of Sarkozy’s frenzied approach to governing. Not for nothing was he known as the Energizer Bunny and the Omnipresident. Hollande, on the other hand, is most often compared to a bland plastic-packaged custard called Flanby.
So desperate for sensation is the French press that it’s easy for Sarkozy to launch himself into the headlines with a double negative cited second-hand: “I cannot not come back, you know,” he recently told “a friend,” the conservative weekly Le Point reported earlier this month, and suddenly the French twittersphere was aflutter.
Sarkozy’s glamorous wife, the former supermodel turned French-pop chanteuse, Carla Bruni, fits neatly into a comeback strategy. People love to talk about her. Some enjoy listening to her. And many like to look at her.
(According to an American cyber-security firm, at a G20 summit in Paris in 2011, a hacker phishing for responses promised delegates they could see naked pictures of Bruni by clicking on what turned out to be a virus-laced link. What a bunch of gullible guys. Thanks to her long career as a model, naked pictures of Bruni are about as common on the Web as Justin Bieber selfies, and considerably more tasteful.)
Because of Bruni’s fame, Sarkozy can be the center of attention without having to insist he’s the center of attention. A few weeks ago Bruni started touring to promote her latest album. As he accompanied her to concerts and settled into his seat among invited glitterati in Paris and Bordeaux, all cameras turn to the ex-president.
But what Bruni is singing on stage deserves a closer look. Her album, which is sung en français, is given the English name “Little French Songs.” And one of them is a love letter to “Mon Raymond,” my Raymond, who is Nicolas, in fact. (Bruni told NPR last summer that she changed the name because it was easier to rhyme.) “Raymond” never hesitates to cross the Rubicon, she sings. He’s a cannon, an atomic bomb, he’s complex, he’s “sentimental but tactical,” he’s the boss, he wears a tie but he’s a pirate, and so on.
Actually, “Mon Raymond” is a pretty good portrait of her Nicolas and the French public’s Sarko —and looking forward toward the next three long years before the voters go to the polls, that’s just the problem.
As a politician, Sarkozy is as brutal as any buccaneer, and he lets the world see it. Like a bomb, he’s unable to contain himself once he goes off. There is about him something of the gangster, a little tough-guy character like Joe Pesci in Casino: uncultured, uncontrolled, very smart, and utterly ruthless. Le Point headlined its article about Sarkozy’s supposed comeback “Le Tonton Flingueur de la rue Miromesnil,” referring to a classic 1963 movie about a French mobster called “Uncle Gunslinger.”
While the ex-president has succeeded with the first “passive” phase of his comeback, as Guillaume Tabard wrote recently in the conservative French daily Le Figaro, “he still has to put together the ‘active’ part,” and the obstacles ahead may be insurmountable.
For the last 18 months, Sarkozy has seen his political party, the UMP, tear itself to pieces. That leaves him as the potential savior—but there may be precious little organization left by the time he makes his move. And while folks in France felt they knew President Sarkozy’s personality, after five years watching him in office many remained puzzled by his policies.
Sarkozy had been elected in 2007 promising deep economic restructuring, à la Margaret Thatcher, but substantial reforms were few and far between. He loved to talk tough about crime and illegal immigration, but managed to make little headway curbing either.
When Sarkozy ran for president in 2007 he drew vital support from voters on the far right who had backed the xenophobic demagogue Jean-Marie Le Pen and his National Front in earlier elections. But by 2012 Le Pen’s daughter had taken her father’s mantle, dry-cleaned it, and presented herself as the new heroine of the not-so-very-far right. National Front voters refused to flock to Sarkozy’s banner. They no longer trusted him. More moderate voters who never could stand the political stench around Jean-Marie Le Pen, sensed about his daughter l’Air du Temps. Sarkozy lost.
Next May, when voters go to the polls in municipal elections and to choose members of the European parliament, Marine Le Pen’s party is expected to win big. Hollande may start rising in the polls as well (he could hardly do worse). At that point, Sarkozy will have to have a message that’s convincing, and a personality that inspires confidence. Right now, this guy Raymond has neither.