In the wake of the ever-expanding “Sarkoleaks” scandal – ignited by the release of recordings made of the former president while he was in office – Nicolas Sarkozy published an editorial Friday in the right-leaning French periodical Le Figaro. In the piece, entitled “What I want to say to the French people,” Sarkozy lambasted the surveillance as politically motived and made comparisons to the East German Stasi secret police during the cold war.
The article marks a fiery departure from the former French leader’s prior silence on the matter, even as his center-right UMP party did battle for him, i.e., alleging members of President François Hollande’s ruling Socialist Party (PS) knew about the recordings before they were leaked to the press. (Hollande himself waded into the fray a day before Sarkozy’s piece ran, retorting, “Any comparison with dictatorships is simply unbearable.”) Sarkozy’s ire is to be expected. The recordings have put the former French leader under the spotlight by bringing uncomfortable allegations to the forefront – notably, illegal funding of Sarkozy’s 2007 presidential campaign by late Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi – just as the pol is reportedly preparing a return to the political stage ahead of the 2017 presidential elections. What’s more, the tapes have revealed fractures within the UMP party, already struggling to rebound from a corruption scandal haunting president Jean-François Copé and a brush with bankruptcy last year.
But while Sarkozy’s timing is deliberate – the editorial comes two days before nationwide local elections – the former president may be far from hitting the home run he aimed for. (It’s worth noting that the left-leaning daily Le Monde was quick to run a response piece Friday enumerating the editorial’s many (alleged) fallacies and exaggerations.) But French voters, too, are unlikely to be swayed by the impassioned letter. Opinion polls show that the French people are distrustful of both the UMP and the Socialist party; a survey published Tuesday revealed that 30% of respondents said resentment with the mainstream parties would play a factor in their vote.
Now, by intensifying the quarrel between the French Right and Left — factions which traditionally closed ranks (if only temporarily) in three-way run-offs to prevent the accession of far right candidates during local ballots – Sarkozy’s parry may exacerbate the inevitable protest vote and help fringe parties gain ground. Meaning that, once again, the far-right Front National (FN) looks to benefit.
True, the PS is expected to maintain control of key cities like Paris, Lyon and Lille, and the UMP Marseilles, aided by the fact that local, rather than national, politics have historically held the most importance in municipal elections. But with little indication that the malaise troubling France’s mainstream political parties is being cured (far from it in fact), the field is wide open for the far right to make a strong showing in European elections this May.
It is too late for either Sarkozy or Hollande’s party to regain lost ground ahead of Sunday’s ballot, or for that matter before the critical European elections. With three years to go before France’s next presidential race, and FN leader Marine Le Pen waiting in the wings, both camps need to lay aside the blame game – and get to work.