Feb. 24 (Bloomberg) -- On the night French President Nicolas Sarkozy lost his re-election bid in May 2012, he told crestfallen supporters he was quitting politics. About two years on, he’s having trouble keeping his promise.
The 59-year-old showed up Feb. 10 at a rally for Paris mayoral candidate Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet. Last week he made it to the cover of the weekly Paris Match with his wife, singer Carla Bruni. This week he’s scheduled to meet with the other woman in his life: German Chancellor Angela Merkel -- their close working ties led to the coining of the word “Merkozy.”
“The strategy here is very clear,” said Yves-Marie Cann, a pollster at CSA in Paris. “These postcards to the public are meant to generate nostalgia, but they’re double edged. His image is the same and those who don’t like him are reminded why.”
The will-he-won’t-he-return speculation in the French press has gathered pace as Socialist President Francois Hollande’s popularity has sunk to record lows. Although Sarkozy, the first French president in more than 30 years to fail to win re-election, has left the question open, his supporters and people close to him say he’ll make a political comeback.
“I don’t know if he’ll be a candidate, but I think he will be,” Dominique Bussereau, a lawmaker from Sarkozy’s Union for a Popular Moment and a former minister, told reporters during a campaign-style visit Sarkozy made to western France on Jan. 30. “It’s a trump for our party to have a former president who remains popular.”
Bernadette Chirac, former President Jacques Chirac’s wife and a Sarkozy supporter in the 2012 vote, said in an interview on Europe 1 radio eight days earlier that the former head of state will “obviously” be a candidate in the 2017 election.
Sarkozy got 48.4 percent of votes in the second round of the 2012 election compared with 51.6 percent for Hollande.
Sarkozy was both a victim of Europe’s debt crisis and sanctioned for his flamboyant, “bling-bling” personal style -- with his penchant for Ray-Ban sunglasses and holidays on the yachts of rich friends.
He has been coy recently about his political ambitions, deflecting questions about a possible comeback. His most recent comments on the matter are almost a year old. He told Valeurs Actuelles magazine in March that he may have to return to public life for the sake of the country, adding that his contribution would be in economics, not politics.
“Unfortunately, there will be a moment when it won’t even be a question of ‘do you want to’ but ‘do you have a choice?’ to come back,” the magazine quoted him as saying in an interview.
Right after his defeat, Sarkozy was captured in photographs jogging in the Bois de Boulogne -- on the outskirts of Paris -- with a two-day stubble or vacationing with his wife, and was quoted as saying he was glad to be away from it all.
Television footage of him recently has had a more campaign-like feel with supporters treating him like a rock star.
Sarkozy’s presence at mayoral candidate Kosciusko-Morizet’s rally this month coincided with Hollande’s trip to the U.S. -- the first state visit by a French president since 1996.
Television stations devoted more or less the same amount of time to the two events on the day. The all-news BFM television channel covered the crowds surrounding Sarkozy at the meeting in a split screen with Hollande arriving in Washington.
Sarkozy said his presence at the meeting was just an attempt to return a favor to Kosciusko-Morizet, who had been a minister in his government and his campaign spokeswoman.
“She was a courageous and intelligent spokeswoman for my campaign,” Sarkozy told the cameras on arrival at the meeting. “The least I can do is to return her friendship and loyalty.”
In the last three months Sarkozy has made trips across France, from Cannes on the Mediterranean to Chatelaillon-Plage on the Atlantic coast, drawing crowds in the towns he visits.
On Feb. 28, he’s set to see Merkel when he attends a meeting in Berlin of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, a think tank with close links to the German Chancellor’s Christian Democratic Union party.
Polls on a potential return to politics by Sarkozy have drawn mixed reactions.
A December poll by Ifop showed that 46 percent of people would prefer Sarkozy as president today. Among those surveyed who voted for Hollande 20 months ago, 11 percent said they would now vote Sarkozy, Ifop said.
A February survey by CSA showed voters’ views of Sarkozy were little changed since he left office. Asked if they miss Sarkozy being president, 54 percent said they don’t, compared with 40 percent who said they do, the poll showed.
Among voters identifying themselves as conservative, that figure jumps to 84 percent, and 68 percent of such voters said they want Sarkozy to lead his Union for a Popular Moment in the presidential election three years from now.
The reception Sarkozy is getting from his supporters is in no small part because of the disarray in his party. The party has broken into factions after members fought for the leadership spot once he left the scene.
Francois Fillon, prime minister during Sarkozy’s tenure, threatened to sue fellow UMP lawmaker Jean-Francois Cope in 2012, claiming that an almost evenly split internal vote that made Cope secretary general of the party was fraudulent.
The two politicians avoided a full-blown legal battle by agreeing to hold primary votes for the leadership in 2016. Party elders are adamant that Sarkozy will have to participate in such a contest if he wants to come back.
“I think Sarkozy is dying to return to political life,” Alain Juppe, a former premier who served as Sarkozy’s foreign minister, said in an interview with Les inRocks magazine. “If he’s to be the UMP’s champion, he’ll have to renew his ideas. France has changed, the world has changed.”
Juppe, who tweeted the interview, declined to say whether he himself wants to run for president, though he did add that primaries are now “in the culture” of party members.
Thierry Mandon, a Socialist lawmaker, says the UMP divisions mean that Sarkozy can easily come back but he’s unlikely to win an actual election.
“A strongman, even if he’s injured, can impose himself on a house that’s in ruins,” Mandon said. “But a party that is divided, that can’t agree on policy or even a long-term plan for the country cannot win the presidency.”
Those surveyed by CSA showed that voters perceive Sarkozy to be dynamic, modern and presidential. Only 35 percent see him as someone who’s aware of the concerns of ordinary people, and an even smaller percentage sees him as someone who keeps his promises or describes him as honest.
“The rejection of Nicolas Sarkozy among the wider population remains strong,” CSA’s Cann said. “A return is far from a sure thing.”
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