Nicolas Sarkozy has been “elected” as the UMP’s presidential candidate. Why the scarequotes? Well, “elected” usually implies a contest between more than one candidate. And Sarkozy was faced with only one contestant-the Apathy ticket.
Over Christmas, he successfully neutralised most of the possible internecine threats, bringing essentially all the serious rightwing politicians on board. The key to this was his recruitment of former Prime Minister (and convicted criminal) Alain JuppÃ©, who was parachuted
into a parliamentary seat back into Bordeaux town hall in the autumn, possibly in the hope he would run against Sarkozy.
But JuppÃ© has signed up with Sarko, almost certainly in exchange for a promise that he will return to the prime minister’s office if the Right wins the election. Defence Minister MichÃ©le Alliot-Marie, meanwhile, saw her campaign fail to get off the ground in a meaningful fashion. That left only Sarko to face an uncontested election. You might have expected a North Korean majority of 90+ per cent, but it didn’t happen. Only 69 per cent of those eligible to vote picked Sarkozy over the apathy ticket.
Before that, though, there had already been some other interesting developments..
The campaign wildcard has always been the possibility of Jacques Chirac running for a third term, despite Sarkozy and the years ticking by. It looks more and more like he might do it. He devoted his New Year’s Eve TV address to the outline of a “social and economic agenda”, which is a little strange for someone who isn’t planning to stand again. Rather than the backdrop of his office he normally uses, this time he appeared against the backdrop of a large national flag.
In an idiosyncratic twist, Chirac has plenty of opportunities to express himself in January through his schedule of New Year’s greetings-there are about a dozen of these state occasions, on which the president presents his best wishes to various institutions, and of course makes a speech on television. So far, he has spared no opportunity to comment on current policy and politics-it’s beginning to look like a stealth campaign launch.
His polling numbers remain dire, but one wonders how much of that is due to the uncertainty as to whether or not he will run. There are some grounds to think he might stand more of a chance than looks likely – for a start, there’s almost a third of the UMP membership up for grabs, if the election is anything to go by. He is nothing if not a fearsome campaigner, and there are rumours that the UMP is in financial difficulties. According to Le Canard EnchainÃ©, the party is heavily in debt and will have to borrow more even to take advantage of its full allocation of matching funds from the state. Sarkozy’s roadshow of large campaign events has cost a fortune, as does the rent on the party’s grand headquarters-the HQ alone sucks up 83 per cent of the party’s income from membership fees and donors. (Update: the rally for Sarko’s election is reported to have cost â‚¬3.5 million.)
Another reason for this is that the rightwing parties that formed the UMP have hung on to their own property and funds (as well, presumably, as membership rolls, lists of supporters and such). Therefore, the new party had to borrow heavily to set up its infrastructure for the 2002 parliamentary elections. Alain JuppÃ© – for it is he – supposedly chose the grand new offices himself, which is ironic as he was the leader of the Gaullists, whose own party headquarters was available.
(The Socialists, for their part, have profited by regaining seats since 2002, which means they can draw more public funding – and they cut costs after the debacle. Le Canard estimates that they have some â‚¬6-7 million over and above their expected campaigning expenses.)
In a straight-out scrap, remembering that part of the rightwing vote will go to the centrist/liberal UDF’s Francois Bayrou (who’s doing better than expected) and Jean-Marie Le Pen anyway, I don’t think it’s at all impossible that Chirac might squeak past Sarko, especially if Sarko is short of cash. El Presidente, of course, can be expected to misuse state resources for his campaign with alacrity, and one wonders whether he might get his hands on the RPR’s funds outside the UMP. At the very least, his chances of splitting the vote and dropping Sarkozy behind Le Pen are not bad.
And the mutual loathing is quite sufficient to motivate him. (Remember Clearstream.) Then, there’s the psychological-historical factor to consider. Chirac is a Gaullist and The General was never shy of a comeback. His wife, Bernadette, is rumoured to be pushing him into it. Less trivially, perhaps the relevant analogy is Winston Churchill’s return to power in 1951. Churchill and Chirac’s careers have more than a small resemblance, especially if you subscribe to the Robert Rhodes-James thesis that Churchill’s career up to 1940 was defined by failure. Both of them swam around ideologically, relied on a cabal of wildly assorted and sometimes alarming friends, entertained epically with state funds, were frequently and spectacularly wrong, but got one crucial decision right.
Especially after his stroke in 1953, it was clear Winston was going to go, but he held off from the prospect again and again. One of his motivations (as well as distrust of Anthony Eden’s judgement) was almost certainly that his retirement would be the beginning of his death, “his first death” as his daughter put it. Even if he lived long after resignation, which was hardly a safe bet given his lifestyle, it was going to be very boring out there. Boredom was something he never tolerated well.
Chirac’s Anthony Eden figures, De Villepin and JuppÃ©, haven’t turned out well. De Villepin went from the eloquent foreign minister of 2002 to the bungler of 2004-5. JuppÃ© got caught, and then – worse – betrayed him. In Chirac’s case, he’s probably in better medical condition than Winston was, despite his famously huge wine budgets as Mayor of Paris, Prime Minister, and President. And he has the added motivation to fight on that prosecution and even incarceration might follow swiftly on resignation. He still has his close supporters, and an obvious replacement for Dominique de Villepin in MichÃ©le Alliot-Marie. He also has a grievance – after all, he signed the constitutional amendment that reduced the presidential term from 7 to 5 years, signing away 4 years of possible presidence.
That amendment also changed the presidency from a term-limited post to one renewable without limit. And 4 years is almost another term.