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Seventy years after the publication of Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot,” the French presidential election campaign has thrown up a new drama of the absurd: “Waiting for Sarko.”
With eight weeks to go before the first round of voting, France’s only living, center-right ex-president, Nicolas Sarkozy, has yet to say whether he supports the center-right candidate, Valérie Pécresse.
On Sunday, Sarkozy was a glaring absentee at Pécresse’s first big rally of the campaign in Paris. Last Friday, the candidate visited the former president. Their conversation was described as “frank and friendly” but no endorsement followed.
Worse still, private comments by Sarkozy appeared last week in the center-right daily newspaper, Le Figaro, lambasting the campaigning skills of the standard-bearer of Les Républicains, the party that he founded.
“Valérie is all over the place,” Sarkozy was quoted as saying. “Who’s talking about Valérie Pécresse? She’s nonexistent.”
Her limp and widely criticized delivery of a jumbled 90 minute speech at Sunday’s rally will have done nothing to change Sarkozy’s mind.
Two questions arise.
First, why should Sarkozy’s opinion matter? He has retired from politics. He is appealing against his two jail sentences and convictions last year for attempting to bribe a judge and illegal campaign financing.
Second, why is Sarkozy trying to undermine the campaign of his former higher education minister? Apart from the harsh words reported by Le Figaro — which have not been denied — several politicians close to Sarkozy have defected from the Pécresse camp to President Emmanuel Macron in the last week.
To the first question: Sarkozy’s opinion does matter. He remains very popular with the Les Républicains (LR) base and the wider center-right electorate. He is seen by them as the last conservative politician able to cast a spell over both the moderate, pro-European and nationalist, anti-migrant wings of the party.
If Sarkozy continues to keep Pécresse waiting — or worse, endorses Macron — her already floundering campaign may be damaged beyond repair.
The second question — what is Sarkozy up to? — is harder to answer.
Some LR party sources suggest that it’s all a question of pride and pique. Pécresse took the side of the late President Jacques Chirac in his battle with Sarkozy for control of an LR predecessor party in 2006. She often mentions Chirac in her campaign speeches but rarely mentions Sarkozy.
I believe that Sarkozy’s “Pécresse problem” goes much further than pique. It is part of a battle for the soul of the “traditional” French right and envisages the possibility — even likelihood — that the left-right boundaries of French politics will be further redrawn in the next two or three years.
Three weeks ago the former president was invited to lunch at the Elysée Palace. The two presidents are reported to have discussed the shape and scope of a second Macron mandate.
According to French media reports, Sarkozy proposed his old protégé, Christine Lagarde, president of the European Central Bank, as Macron’s prime minister if he wins (as polls suggest he will) on April 24.
The former president might just be hedging his bets by remaining silent.
Squeezed between Macron’s centrist movement and the far right — with National Rally leader Marine Le Pen and her rival Eric Zemmour totaling more than 30 percent of voting intentions, according to POLITICO’s Poll of Polls, Pécresse is struggling to make headway and hold onto the nationalist, anti-European wing of her party.
Since winning the center-right primary in December, she has leaned heavily (against her own instincts) to the right.
She did so again on Sunday with attacks on the EU and a slippery reference to the conspiracy theory that migration is intended to achieve a “great replacement” of the white race.
As a result, the defections from her moderate conservative wing are likely to grow in the coming weeks.
Some in Sarkozy’s inner circle have long advocated that the only way to ensure the survival of a strong, pro-European French center-right is for the moderate wing of Les Républicains to merge or ally with Macron’s centrist movement.
Sarkozy is unlikely to endorse Macron during the first-round campaign but he wants to be in a strong position to influence the future map of French politics if the president does win a second term. Pécresse, meanwhile, says that she is still hopeful that Sarkozy will endorse her — eventually. As one of the characters says towards the end of “Waiting for Godot”: “Better hope deferred than none.”