Paris: Former president Nicolas Sarkozy announced his return to French politics on Friday, taking to Facebook to offer disenchanted voters a “new political choice” amid a deep political and economic crisis.
After several months of ‘will he, won’t he’, France’s ex-leader announced his return to the cut-throat political front-line despite being directly or indirectly involved in several graft investigations.
The energetic 59-year-old — who inspires hate and adoration in roughly equal measure — made the announcement in a very 21st century way, via a declaration on his Facebook page.
“After a lengthy period of reflection, I have decided to offer the French people a new political choice,” he said.
He said he could not “remain a spectator given the situation in which France finds itself, given the destruction of political debate and the persistence of the derisory splits within the opposition.”
A political heavyweight who earned the nickname “bling-bling” for his flashy style, Sarkozy once told journalists they would never hear from him again if he lost the 2012 polls.
But his comeback comes as his one-time nemesis Francois Hollande struggles to contain an economic crisis that has seen his popularity sink to record lows.
Experts say Sarkozy’s return might have the ironic effect of boosting Hollande, as it will deflect attention from his own failures and give him someone to aim at.
Asked whether the Socalists wanted Sarkozy back, a top Hollande ally, Jean-Marie Le Guen replied: “Of course! We’ve been on our own in the ring for two years now.”
“For Francois Hollande, for the government, for the left, it’s definitely good news,” said political scientist Eddy Fougier.
However, experts warn a Sarkozy comeback will be no easy feat.
“He had gradually forged the image of a wise man who stayed on the edge of the river and who only made comments every now and then,” said Pascal Perrineau from the Institute of Political Studies in Paris.
“But if he becomes UMP president, he will be asked for his opinion on everything every morning. There is a risk he will be worn down.”
Many in the embattled and divided UMP party are loyally devoted to the son of a Hungarian immigrant, but he also has a lot of rivals within.
Chief among these is Alain Juppe, a popular politician who served as defence and then foreign minister under Sarkozy and has announced he will stand for UMP primaries planned for 2016, with a view to running for president the following year.
Polls suggest Juppe is the favourite among the French even if Sarkozy remains the most popular within his own camp.
Sarkozy has largely remained out of the public eye since his electoral defeat, only making appearances in carefully orchestrated outings such as at the concerts of his singer-wife Carla Bruni-Sarkozy.
But he has stayed in the news, not least because of a myriad of ongoing legal investigations that involve him in one form or another.
He was charged in July with corruption and influence peddling related to his alleged attempt to interfere in a judicial case.
There are also legal questions around the financing of his 2007 and 2012 campaigns which could come back to bite him.
“If he becomes UMP president ... Sarkozy’s political agenda will be constantly pushed around by an investigation into this case or that case, by a judge summoning him for questioning,” says Perrineau.
And while his supporters are desperate for him to return to politics, the wider French population doesn’t really care.
A poll released on Tuesday by OpinionWay found that 64 per cent of French people are not interested in his upcoming comeback announcement.
At a time of near-zero growth and record unemployment, all eyes will nevertheless be on whether Sarkozy will come back a changed man after a five-year term that saw him pull off audacious foreign policy moves but broadly fail on the economic front, particularly on jobs.
Rather than coming down, unemployment rose to close to 10 per cent on Sarkozy’s watch at the height of the financial crisis, and more than double that rate among young people.
His “bling-bling” image also shocked the country after he celebrated his 2007 victory at a posh Paris restaurant and went straight for a holiday on his billionaire friend’s yacht.