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Sarkozy back on march to power and confrontation

Sarkozy back on march to power and confrontation

Former president's win a challenge for Paris-Berlin tandem

by David Marsh

Mon 1 Dec 2014

Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, was not amused when François Hollande, France’s Socialist president, became head of state in May 2012. Her distaste might rise to a new pitch at the thought of the next French presidential poll in 2017.

Nicolas Sarkozy could be on the way back. And, whatever happens in the run up to the election 29 months away, one thing is certain: Franco-German politics will become messier, more polarised and more confrontational.

Just a few months before Hollande’s 2012 triumph, Merkel dispatched one of her right-hand men, Hermann Gröhe, now health minister in the Berlin government, to France to berate Hollande for his ‘outdated concepts and left-wing dreams from the ragbag of politics’. Small wonder that Hollande and Merkel have not been a smooth-running tandem.

Two and a half years after losing the Elysée Palace, Sarkozy at the weekend wrested back control of France’s centre-right opposition party Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP), although without the comprehensive victory that would make him certain of his party’s presidential nomination.

If he won the party’s backing, and regained the presidency in April-May 2017 – two big ifs – Sarkozy would be the first-ever French president to be re-elected after a break since the 24-strong presidential line was established with the election of Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte (later Emperor Napoleon III) in 1848. If that happened, he would re-confront Merkel for a hazardous four months before the next German general election, probably in September 2017 – a precarious period that could include a British referendum on membership of the European Union in summer 2017.

Although generally credited with steadying the partnership with Merkel towards the end of his presidency, Sarkozy’s relationship with Germany was decidedly rocky. Future ties would be still more volatile, given the rise in economic tensions in recent years.

Already bearing the scars of strong competition with Germany during previous periods of economic stewardship in 1993-95 (when he was budget minister) and 2004 (as finance minister), Sarkozy won a reputation for abrasiveness and a fondness for quarrels when he took the presidency in 2007.

One of his first European acts was to invite himself to a meeting of euro area finance ministers in July 2007 – just before the outbreak of the global financial crisis – to argue with Germany in favour of postponing planned French budget cuts. At the height of the euro crisis that erupted in 2010, Sarkozy was rumoured to have threatened Merkel with taking France out of the single currency.

In November 2011, together with President Barack Obama, he allegedly reduced Merkel to tears after badgering her to support a plan – later withdrawn – to force the Bundesbank to back with its own reserves a controversial rescue for Greece and other errant euro members.

Still under official investigation over alleged corruption, and hampered by the general perception of slippage and disarray in his 2007-12 term, Sarkozy won 64.5% of his party’s support in the weekend’s vote, enough to avoid a second-round run-off, but well down on the 85% gained when he took the party’s leadership in 2004.

Sarkozy must now face down judicial allegations, relentlessly harry Hollande on the domestic stage, reunite his own bitterly divided party still reeling from the 2012 defeat, shake off an increasingly feisty far-right challenger, Front National leader Marine Le Pen, and prepare for a presidential primary contest in 2016 against UMP modernisers including former prime minister Alain Juppé.

At a party congress on Sunday, Le Pen said of the main right-wing party: ‘Our movement is not like theirs, because we are not like them. They are the old world, we are the future, the foundation of a new social contract.’ According to a recent poll, if the first round of the French presidential election were held today, Le Pen would win with 30% of the vote.

Hollande meanwhile has promised that he would not stand again in 2017 if he fails to cut unemployment and regenerate the economy during the rest of his five-year term, conditions that, on today’s performance and prospects, look unlikely to be met. A renascent Front National, a battered incumbent president and a febrile main right-wing opposition under a skirmish-prone leader prepared for emotional warfare: all this adds up to a potentially explosive cocktail in the euro area’s second biggest economy.

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