On Monday, a French court rendered a judgment perhaps more appropriate for the ides of March than the first of March. The tribunal declared that former President Nicolas Sarkozy was guilty of corruption and influence peddling and sentenced him to three years in custody, though he will only have to serve one, and even that’s unlikely to happen for years, if ever. The decision was attacked by supporters on the right as a political assassination and applauded by critics on the left as the just response of the republic.
Yet the most striking parallels are not with the ancient Roman republic but with the present-day American republic. The causes of Sarkozy’s rise and fall, as well as the political and judicial consequences that ensued, anticipate the recent career of an American president who ignored the public good for private ends and expected to be served by the republic rather than serve it.
When Sarkozy defeated the Socialist Ségolène Royal in the 2007 presidential election, the country was galvanized. Rather than marking yet another transfer of power between France’s traditional right and left, Sarkozy’s victory instead seemed to mark a rupture. Sarkozy was something genuinely new in French politics.
Unlike nearly all of his conservative and socialist predecessors, who were products of the nation’s grandes écoles—the parallel system of higher education that trains the country’s political and intellectual, financial and industrial elites—Sarkozy scraped through law school. But that hardly mattered. Ambitious and arrogant, Sarkozy elbowed his way into the world of finance and industry, and then the world of conservative politics. During the 1980s and ’90s, he rose rapidly through the ranks of the movement and served in a series of ministerial positions. The most important by far was as interior minister, where he came to the world’s attention with the eruption of riots in the country’s disaffected and decayed suburbs in 2005. He vowed to rid these neighborhoods of the racaille, or rabble, using a Kärcher—a brand of power washer—if necessary.
His language did little to quell the unrest but did much to thrill the conservative rank and file. Sarkozy pursued this populist tack during his campaign for the presidency, which he ran as a self-proclaimed outsider and bane of the politically correct. In this spirit, he announced his intention to restrict immigration and create a Ministry of Immigration and National Identity. That Sarkozy associated this identity with the “Gauls”—a mythical construct that earlier French governments had latched on to in order to provide the nation with a sense of collective identity—proved no more a problem in the eyes of his supporters than did his failure to institute a national census based on ethnic background. Sarkozy’s political failures weighed little against his rhetorical successes. Sarkozy’s ethnic dog whistles rallied to his side the millions of French for whom a changing demography and economy made them feel that they were no longer at home in France.
Along with his crude brand of populism, Sarkozy also threw himself into “peopleisme.” The French phrase for celebrity culture le people entered the Elysée with Sarkozy. Dubbed President Bling-Bling, the sunglasses- and jewelry-sporting Sarkozy reveled in the company of stars, ranging from his wife, the singer and model Carla Bruni, to the iconic rocker Johnny Hallyday. As for le peuple who had voted him into the Elysée, Sarkozy wagered that his rhetorical excesses would satisfy them. Yet by the end of his frenetic five-year term, littered with failed efforts at institutional and constitutional reforms, Sarkozy was defeated by the bland Socialist François Hollande, who tellingly ran as “Monsieur Normal.”
Substitute the former U.S. president for Sarkozy and the current one for Hollande, and this summary reads as a French prequel to our own 2020 presidential election. As if to underscore the parallels, Sarkozy’s post-presidential life has lurched from one courtroom to the next. This week’s case is but one of a dozen in which Sarkozy has been mired since he moved out of the Elysée in 2012. Grift and greed are at the heart of most of these affairs, and while some have been shelved and others do not directly implicate Sarkozy, at least four cases are still under judicial scrutiny. Most disturbing is the investigation into whether the late Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi channeled large sums of money into Sarkozy’s successful 2007 presidential run.
Just as with the Republican Party, which, rather than breaking with Trump in the wake of the Capitol insurrection, has instead rallied behind him, so too with Les Républicains, the conservative party created by Sarkozy. The party rank and file are still attached to Sarkozy, while the leadership had banked on Sarkozy running again in next year’s presidential election. In fact, without another candidate capable of seriously challenging the two front-runners—President Emmanuel Macron and far-right leader Marine Le Pen—Les Républicains do not have a plan B if Sarkozy does not run. This partly explains the declarations of loyalty made by the party’s current leaders, who have denounced the “judicial relentlessness” and “vengeance” behind these charges.
Here, too, Sarkozy shares a trait with his American analogue. While he did his best to divide the country while in office, he has at least succeeded in uniting his own party as long as he remains in the public eye.