Sarkozy crashes out of French presidential race after courting far-right with rhetoric on Muslims

PUBLISHED : Monday, 21 November, 2016, 8:01am
UPDATED : Monday, 21 November, 2016, 8:32am

France’s ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy was spectacularly thrown out of the race for the French presidency on Sunday, with voters cutting short a political comeback that tapped into populist sentiment.

Dealt a humiliating blow in the conservative nomination contest, four years after losing a first re-election bid to Socialist Francois Hollande, Sarkozy, 61, alluded to a possible withdrawal from political life when he conceded defeat.

“It’s time for me to try a life with more private passions than public ones,” he said, thanking his supermodel-turned-singer wife Carla Bruni and his children.

Thatcher fan Francois Fillon now the surprise frontrunner in France’s presidential battle

“I feel no bitterness, no sadness, and I wish all the best for my country,” he told supporters at his campaign headquarters.

His surprise exit, which had appeared unthinkable days earlier, also marked the failure of a strategy to court far-right voters with divisive rhetoric and tough measures on immigration and law-and-order.

In campaign speeches, Sarkozy had vowed to ban the Islamic burkini swimsuit, had ruled out special school lunches for Muslim children - saying they should fill up on a double portion of chips when pork is on the menu - and told migrants gaining citizenship that their ancestors were Gauls.

Former prime minister Alain Juppe, who was seen going through to the runoff with fellow former premier Francois Fillon, had called Sarkozy’s campaign strategy “suicidal”.

He came a distant third with about 20 pe rcent of the votes on Sunday, behind surprise frontrunner Fillon’s 44 per cent and Juppe’s 28 per cent, according to partial results.

Allegations that he took covert funding from Libya, which resurfaced earlier this week, may have also played a role in Sarkozy’s defeat.

“Aren’t you ashamed of yourself?” he told a journalist who asked him about the claims during a presidential TV debate.

But some voiced doubts about whether Sarkozy, who said he’d quit politics after losing power in 2012 only to make a comeback two years later, would really retire.

“I have seen a certain number of things during my political life, so I’d be careful on retirements,” said former prime minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin, who backs Juppe.

The son of a Hungarian immigrant father, Sarkozy debuted in politics as mayor of the wealthy district of Neuilly outside central Paris, before serving as President Jacques Chirac’s finance minister. Later as interior minister, he called protesters in a Paris suburb “scum”.

As president between 2007 and 2012, Sarkozy’s high-energy style and abrasive manner polarised voters. His modest attempts at tax and labour reforms and limited success in creating jobs disenchanted both free-marketeers and centrist voters whom he had also assiduously courted to win power.

Sarkozy promised to quit politics altogether after Hollande defeated him in May 2012. However, he returned to the fray in September 2014, citing the need to rescue France from what he described as the socialist’s catastrophic presidency.

Painting Sarkozy as a “prophet of doom”, Juppe has said he wants to be a “prophet of happiness”, risking ridicule in a country renowned for its pessimism.

“The French people need more than ever to unite to turn the page on a disastrous five years (under Socialist President Francois Hollande) ... and to create a bulwark against” the far-right National Front of Marine Le Pen, Juppe said after securing his second-place finish.

One of France’s most popular politicians, the longtime mayor of Bordeaux was the frontrunner for the centre-right’s nomination until a late surge by Fillon.

Tall, balding and considered a bit stiff by many, Juppe has reached out to the vast majority of Muslims who embrace France’s secular values.

His messages have been aimed at the virtually rudderless left as well as the centre.

Juppe was the budget minister for two years in 1996-98 and foreign minister for the first time from 1993 to 1995, during France’s involvement in wars in the former Yugoslavia.

He spent several years in the political wilderness after a party funding scandal in 2004, in which he was seen as the fall guy for his mentor Chirac.

Juppe was convicted and given a suspended jail sentence that forced him out of office for two years.

Resigning his posts as parliamentary deputy and Bordeaux mayor, Juppe handed the leadership of the centre-right UMP party - now the Republicans - to Sarkozy, who used it as his springboard for the presidency.

Juppe went to teach in Canada before returning to be re-elected mayor of Bordeaux in October 2006.

He has sought to shrug off a reputation as a detached technocrat two decades after his 1995 reform agenda sparked the largest protest movement France had seen since May 1968.

Juppe says he is a “changed” man and now more open to dialogue.

Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse