On Monday, a French court ruled that it might be more appropriate for the March ideas than for March 1. The tribunal found former President Nicolas Sarkozy guilty of corruption and spreading influence, and sentenced him to three years in prison, although he will have to endure only one, and even that is unlikely to happen for years, if at all. The decision was attacked by supporters on the right as a political assassination and applauded by critics on the left as a fair response from the republic.
Yet the most striking parallels are not with the ancient Roman Republic, but with today’s American Republic. The reasons for Sarkozy’s rise and fall, as well as the subsequent political and judicial consequences, predict the recent career of an American president who ignores the public good for personal gain and expects to be served by the republic instead of serving it.
When Sarkozy defeated Socialist Ségolène Royal in the 2007 presidential election, the country was galvanized. Instead of marking another transfer of power between the traditional French right and left, Sarkozy’s victory seems to mark a rift. Sarkozy was something really new in French politics.
Unlike almost all of his conservative and socialist predecessors, who were products of the nation large schools“The parallel system of higher education that trains the country’s political and intellectual, financial and industrial elites,” Sarkozy said. But that hardly mattered. Ambitious and arrogant, Sarkozy broke his elbow in the world of finance and industry, and then in the world of conservative politics. In the 1980s and 1990s, he quickly rose to the ranks of the movement and served in a number of ministerial positions. Most important was the interior minister, where he drew the world’s attention with the outbreak of riots in the country’s disgruntled and corrupt suburbs in 2005. He promised to liberate these neighborhoods from excrement, or jingle using a Kärcher – a brand of power washer – if needed.
His language contributed little to the unrest, but to the excitement of the conservative ranks. Sarkozy pursued this populist attack during his presidential campaign, running as a self-proclaimed outsider and a curse on the politically correct. In this spirit, he announced his intention to limit immigration and create a Ministry of Immigration and National Identity. Sarkozy’s association of this identity with the “Gauls” – a mythical construction used by earlier French governments to give the nation a sense of collective identity – is no more a problem in the eyes of his supporters than a failure to introduced a national census based on ethnic origin. Sarkozy’s political failures are not very severe against his rhetorical successes. Sarkozy’s ethnic dog whistles drew millions of Frenchmen to his side, for whom the changing demographics and economy made them feel no longer at home in France.
Along with his crude mark of populism, Sarkozy threw himself into “nationality.” The French phrase for celebrity culture people entered the Elise with Sarkozy. Named President Bling-Bling, sportswear sunglasses and jewelry, Sarkozy enjoyed the company of stars ranging from his wife, singer and model Carla Bruni, to iconic rocker Johnny Halliday. As for people who had voted for him in the Elise, Sarkozy bet that his rhetorical excesses would satisfy them. Yet by the end of his frantic five-year term, fraught with unsuccessful efforts at institutional and constitutional reform, Sarkozy had been defeated by the unfriendly socialist Francois Hollande, who was clearly running as “Monsieur Normal.”
Replace the former US president with Sarkozy and the current one with Hollande, and this summary reads like a French prequel to our 2020 presidential election. As if to emphasize the parallels, Sarkozy’s post-presidential life has twisted from one courtroom to another. This week’s case is just one of a dozen in which Sarkozy has sunk since leaving Elise in 2012. Handle and greed are at the heart of most of these cases, and while some have been postponed and others are not directly involved with Sarkozy, at least four cases are still under judicial review. Most troubling is the investigation into whether the late Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi channeled large sums into Sarkozy’s successful term in 2007.
Just as with the Republican Party, which instead of breaking with Trump after the Capitol uprising, instead gathered behind him, so with Les Républicains, the conservative party founded by Sarkozy. Party personal data is still attached to Sarkozy, while the leadership has made banks for Sarkozy, who is running again in next year’s presidential election. In fact, without another candidate capable of seriously challenging the two favorites – President Emmanuel Macron and far-right leader Marine Le Pen – Les Républicains has no plan B if Sarkozy does not run. This partly explains the declarations of allegiance made by the current party leaders, who condemned the “judicial ruthlessness” and “revenge” behind these accusations.
Here, too, Sarkozy shares a trait with his American counterpart. Although he did his best to divide the country while in office, he at least managed to unite his own party, as long as he remained in the public eye.
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