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French right decides to do without Nicolas Sarkozy

Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy came in third in Les R├ępublicains party primaries on 20 November 2016. REUTERS/Robert Pratta

Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy has lost his bid for another term after coming in third in the primaries of his centre-right party Les Républicains. More than any proposals, it was Sarkozy’s track record and style that made him appear too much a risk for party members.

Nicolas Sarkozy’s bid for a third chance to enter the Elysée palace featured such a hard line on questions of security, immigration and identity that the former president often drew comparisons with Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right Front National.

But party rivals and supporters alike put his defeat to former prime ministers François Fillon and Alain Juppé – who will face off in a runoff vote on Sunday – more in terms of style than substance.

“Fillon’s program is not that far away from Sarkozy on these topics, so I don’t think that was an issue,” says Sidonie Grand, a member of the youth wing who campaigned for Sarkozy.

“As you know, in France we’ve been hit by terrorist attacks really bad lately, so it’s an important topic for us and I believe it’s going to be one of the main topics for the presidential election.”

Others remember that even if Sarkozy was the only would-be nominee to have served as president, he is also the only one to have also lost a presidential campaign, when he failed to defeat current head of state François Hollande in 2012.

“He was very reluctant accepting any analysis or responsibility for his defeat in 2012, and I think the electorate wanted to find another way,” says party MP Hervé Mariton.

“I think it was mostly the general climate around him, the refusal to draw the lines between success and failures in his previous mandate, and indeed some hysterical conduct in political debates in many circumstances, that all led to the vote that we witnessed yesterday.”

Socialists lose their ‘best adversary’

Sarkozy’s defeat also means Hollande has lost what French newspaper Le Monde calls his “best adversary”.

Hollande won the 2012 presidency largely on a campaign against Sarkozy’s personality and style, and now the unpopular ruling Socialists will be faced with an opponent who can point to Hollande’s failures while deflecting those of Sarkozy.

“I think right-wing voters saw Sarkozy as a risk and wanted him out of the game, but we should not deceive ourselves, because François Fillon has a similar platform of liberal reforms,” says Elsa di Méo, the party’s national secretary for promoting republican values.

“Sarkozy has moved the right wing, and its voters, much farther to the right,” she says. “For us, we have to double our efforts on the ideological and cultural front, and to show the French people that another way is possible, that everything we have done to help the country recover over the past five years now has to continue.”

An uncertain future

Upon learning of the results, Sarkozy admitted defeat, endorsed Fillon and announced he would leave political life, although he had already done so once before, immediately after losing to Hollande in 2012.

But it was widely speculated he would return to seek a second term, and did indeed take up leadership of the party in 2014, taking it forward after a bitter leadership battle between Fillon and Jean-François Copé.

“We were supposed to be the opposition, but we were unable to do anything, because we were fighting within our family,” says Grand. “When Nicolas Sarkozy came back, he built us again. I think for that, we have to be forever grateful.”

Whether Sarkozy will seek any role in political life is of course undeclared for now.

His next public appearance could very well be in court, where he may answer in any number of corruption investigations in which he has been named that have surrounded him before, throughout and since his only presidential term.