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  La France et Sarkozy ont-ils changé ?

Article du New-York Times publié le 6 septembre 2016.

Titre : Nicolas Sarkozy Is Back, but France Has Changed

Sylvie Kauffmann est une ancienne Directrice de la rédaction au Monde

 

PARIS — One of the most popular items on the social networks as Nicolas Sarkozy opened his new presidential bid last month was a video of an interview he gave to the French news channel BFM-TV on March 8, 2012. Still president then, Mr. Sarkozy was seeking a second five-year term, with François Hollande running against him. Asked whether he would quit politics if he lost, he firmly answered, “Yes.” The journalist was taken aback. “Will you quit politics?” he asked again, incredulous. “You can ask me a third time,” the president shot back. “I’m telling you: yes.”

Four years later, “Sarko” is back. Just like his interviewer that day, nobody in France quite believed that this man, who admitted as early as 2003 that he thought all the time about running for president, could live without the adrenaline of a life in politics. In 2012, it took him a few months to recover from defeat, but soon enough he was maneuvering to take back his right-wing party, renaming it Les Républicains and putting his people in charge. In a book published last January, “La France pour la vie” (“France Forever”), a seemingly humbled Mr. Sarkozy acknowledged a few mistakes and tried to portray himself as a new man. This was the first stage of his campaign.

A second book, published last week, “Tout pour la France” (“All for France”), provided a springboard for formally starting his candidacy for the presidential election next April. Written in July in the privacy of the Riviera mansion owned by his wife, Carla Bruni, so hurriedly that spelling mistakes were overlooked, the book argues that Nicolas Sarkozy had to come back, for one simple reason: France needs him, just as France needed Charles de Gaulle in 1958.

In a way, this is reassuring: He has not changed. The image of a humbled, apologetic politician was short-lived — all the more so since it did him no favors in the opinion polls. Better go back to the original. The Sarko we knew is back, with a vengeance.

It is not so easy to run again when you have been ejected from office by a clear majority of voters (he lost to Mr. Hollande by more than three percentage points). Neither is it easy to run again when every poll since you’ve been back in the political arena shows an intense dislike among a large group of voters and a high rate of negative opinions. But one thing Nicolas Sarkozy, 61, does not lack is political ambition. However unpopular, he will do whatever it takes to come back.

 

 

 

 

The fight will be harder this time, despite President Hollande’s dismal standing in opinion polls. Mr. Sarkozy’s problem is that he first needs to win a primary in November. He is no longer the champion of the right, but rather the challenger: His former foreign minister, Alain Juppé, 71, leads in the primary race. And a former prime minister, François Fillon, who is also running, is crucifying his ex-boss for comparing himself to de Gaulle. (“Can you imagine de Gaulle under investigation?” he lashed out recently, in a reference to long-running charges against Mr. Sarkozy of illegal campaign financing.)

So why should France need Mr. Sarkozy in 2017 if it did not want him in 2012? Because, as he explains in his new book, this is not the same country. The situation created by the recent wave of terrorist attacks requires a strong, experienced man at the helm, this argument goes. “I felt I had the strength to lead this battle at such a tormented moment in our history,” he wrote. Some saw in the title “All for France” a reference to a book written by Jacques Chirac for his 1995 campaign, “La France pour tous” (“France for All”). By reversing the proposition, Mr. Sarkozy hopes that his new patriotic spirit will erase the worst memories he left — of his obsessive ego, his arrogance, his bragging and his bellicosity.

Will he succeed? Convinced that next year’s election will be fought on the right, rather than at the center, the former president is making a huge wager. The No. 1 issue of this campaign, he thinks, will not be the economy, which he did not have the courage to reform when he was in office, but France, war and Islam: It’s the identity, stupid.

This is a risky bet. Where Mr. Juppé aims to unify and pacify, Mr. Sarkozy is unabashedly divisive. Immigration, he says, took a wrong turn in 1976 when President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing allowed families to join economic immigrants in France. Since then, he argues, things have been out of control. He advocates stopping economic immigration for five years, reasoning that integrating immigrants is an old-fashioned concept that has failed. He paints France as a country “forced” by “the ideologues of multiculturalism and the sociologists of inequality” to give up the mission of assimilating newcomers. “Assimilate means not only acquiring French citizenship but also France’s values, culture and way of life,” he has written. “We are not Anglo-Saxons who allow communities to live side by side, ignoring each other.”

Just as Donald J. Trump wants to “make America great again,” Nicolas Sarkozy wants to “make France proud again.” Schoolbooks, he says, should “make our country loved, not make it feel guilty.” He advocates “a French Islam, not Islam in France.” And oh, yes, of course he wants to ban the burkini.

The whole question is whether, even in such tense times, the French are ready for another dose of Sarko. Patriotism is indeed on the rise, but not in a divisive way. Immigration and Islam are certainly worth a debate, and will most likely dominate the campaign in the coming months, but the country needs firefighters, not arsonists. Incendiary politics is Marine Le Pen’s territory; Mr. Sarkozy’s plan, obviously, is to siphon off as many votes as he can from her National Front. But he has been down that road before, and it has not served him well. Indeed, the mood has changed France since the current wave of terrorist attacks began in January 2015. But the turn has not been toward confrontation, and Nicolas Sarkozy may well have misjudged it.

Sylvie Kauffmann, the editorial director and a former editor in chief of Le Monde, is a contributing opinion writer.

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