The Fall of Nicolas Sarkozy: Yes, it was Personal


by John Gaffney

There’s a cartoon character that all French children watched in the ’70s and ‘80s, Calimero. He was a little black chick who, ever provoking trouble, always ended up defeated and complaining, “it’s really so unfair!” when in reality, he was usually the architect of his own misfortunes. At times, towards the end of the presidential campaign of 2012, Nicolas Sarkozy began to look a bit like Calimero.

When he realised he was losing, in the second round debate with his opponent, François Hollande, it was in his last rallies when he began to complain that everyone had ganged up on him: the media (he called it the ‘politico-mediatic system’), the other nine candidates, the lying left, those likening him to Franco, Pétain, and Laval. Looking slightly throttled, disbelieving, and indignant, we could see the hapless Calimero. At one level, one wanted to say to him, “Don’t take this so personally, this is about unemployment and recession, not about you. This is about 10% of the workforce out of work, a 70 billion euro trade deficit, government debt at 90% of GDP, 150,000 children per year leaving school with no qualifications… And besides, Nicolas, every government in Europe (except in Germany) that has faced the electorate since the 2008 crisis has been thrown from office. This is about politics; it isn’t about you, Nicolas”.

Except of course, that it was about him. In fact, against the background of an unhappy nation – six and a half million of them so unhappy and abandoned they voted for the far right candidate – this was only about Nicolas Sarkozy; Nicolas Sarkozy and the French.

On 6 May, François Hollande became the seventh President of the Fifth Republic, and the shortest term sixth President was hurled into deep space by a nation that had been more or less waiting to do this since it elected him in 2007. From the moment he celebrated his 2007 victory with the Rolexes and Champagne bottles a-clinking in Fouquet’s restaurant (instead of gathering his thoughts for a short period in a monastery as he said he was going to do, although, it is never too late…), he became a ‘bling’ President, dragging the office of the presidency to the level of ‘I’m a Celebrity, [don’t] Get Me Out of Here’. His all too conspicuous consumption of trophy wives and visits to Disneyland, of jets, personal salary increases, accompanied by bad language (‘casse-toi, pauv’con’); all these and much more were enough to make the classy and protocol-sensitive French wince with disapproval. They have been waiting to get him ever since. And the election of the Socialist, François Hollande, on Sunday 6 May was, essentially, an anti-Sarkozy referendum. So yes, he had reason to take it all personally. It was personal beyond the imaginings of most other political cultures.

People gathered at the Place de la Bastille, Paris to celebrate the victory of François Hollande. Photograph by Phillipe Leroyer

However, in spite of his being seen to lower the tone of the presidency, and paying the price for it, there was something almost tragic in the scene on Sunday evening when he conceded defeat. The left in their tens of thousands celebrated all night at Place de la Bastille, dancing and singing, shouting with joy “Sarkozy, c’est fini!”, as if they had been delivered from the divisive, attention-seeking adolescent President (aged 57 ½). His concession speech to his weeping fans had something of the presidential dignity he has so lacked for so long. “From the bottom of my heart”, he said, “you are the eternal France…. The responsibility for this defeat is all mine.” and “I love you”.

With some more mea culpas and expressions of such affection along the way, things might have turned out very differently. The personal, of course, is enhanced even here, and that of course, is quintessential Sarkozy. But on the evening of his defeat he went from being Calimero, or perhaps the Frog in La Fontaine’s fable (a little frog who, trying to be as big as an ox, inflated himself until he burst); he went from Calimero and Frog to a more tragic hero. Like Icarus in his fall, you could feel his overconfident desire to fly high, his failure to listen, his crashing to self-destruction. In fact, the dignity of his losing speech, almost lent him grace.

So is it over? In the myth department, he is the only French president who said if they lost, they would –  being rejected by the people – withdraw from political life; the only one bar one, Mr Myth himself, General de Gaulle. So whatever the future holds, it may still hold a hero, reborn from the ashes of the foolish fallen. Let us make two observations, each of which testifies to the compelling singularity of French political culture. First, if Icarus can fall more than once, then Sarkozy has been Icarus-like several times already. In 1995, by backing the wrong candidate (Balladur) for the election, and betraying the one who won (Chirac), he was vilified and left for politically dead. In 1999, having recovered, he led the party in the disastrous European elections, and fell again. To suffer such setbacks suggests lack of political skill. To recover from such setbacks takes political genius. Neither of these falls was truly national and mythical in the way Sunday 6 May 2012 was, but perhaps the scale of this fall may mean that his return could be even more Phoenix-like.

A second point to make is that all ‘the Greats’ of the Fifth Republic have come back from the dead more than once. It is written into the myths underpinning, if not driving, this republic. De Gaulle, of course, came from the political wilderness to form the Republic in 1958. François Mitterrand should never have recovered from the debacle of the left’s electoral near-annihilation after the ‘events’ of 1968. Chirac was all washed up by 1988, and went on to win two presidential terms. The ‘comeback’ is one of the heady ingredients of this whizz bang republic. Perhaps Nicolas Sarkozy will turn out to be the Frank Sinatra of French politics.

About the Author:

John Gaffney is Professor of Politics, and co-director of the Aston Centre for Europe at Aston University. His most recent book, Political Leadership in France: From Charles de Gaulle to Nicolas Sarkozy, has just been published in paperback by Palgrave-Macmillan.