The first time Nicolas Sarkozy stabbed Jacques Chirac in the back was in 1995. Chirac, who had been something of a mentor to the young Sarkozy, was running for the presidency of France; so was Edouard Balladur, another center-right politician with an initial lead in the polls. Wanting to back a winner, Sarkozy defected and threw his support to Balladur. But he’d bet on the wrong horse—Chirac won that election, and Sarkozy paid for it by spending the next seven years locked out of government.
This time in the wilderness was not wasted, however, and savvy deal-making finally resulted in a cabinet appointment during Chirac’s second term. But it didn’t take long for Sarkozy to return to plotting. As minister of the Interior, he began agitating for his boss to abandon thoughts of a third term. “When you have given all you are capable of giving to your country,” Sarkozy told a private audience in 2003, “it is wise to make room for others.” Nobody could doubt for whom he thought the president should make room.
Chirac did not run again, and even (through gritted teeth, no doubt) backed his former protégé’s 2007 campaign. But once was enough. In 2012, Chirac would vote for Sarkozy’s Socialist opponent, François Hollande.
Given the intensity of their feud, it is more than a little ironic that both Sarkozy and Chirac now share the dubious distinction of being the only post-war French presidents to be found guilty of political crimes. On March 1, a Paris court convicted Sarkozy of bribery and influence-peddling, handing down a three year sentence (with two years suspended). According to information mainly obtained from wiretaps, the former president had dangled the prospect of a plum position before a senior judge, hoping to receive in exchange confidential information relating to another corruption case proceeding against him.
The conviction may be overturned on appeal, of course, and Sarkozy has vowed to take his case all the way to the European Court of Human Rights if necessary. Even if it stands, there are sometimes second acts in French public lives (just ask Alain Juppé). But whatever the ultimate outcome, it has already scrapped Sarkozy’s best chance at a return to power. After the verdict was announced, he publicly ruled out another run in 2022. As an elemental force in French politics, the man once dubbed “Super Sarko” may have met his kryptonite.
But if Sarkozy himself is no longer a contender, much about the French political scene still bears his mark. The splintering of the right, enduring feelings of economic insecurity, the appeal of ‘post-partisan’ Macron: all show, to greater or lesser degrees, the enduring impact of his time in power.
To understand why this is, comparison with Chirac is again instructive. Despite nominally representing the same voters, Sarkozy campaigned as much against his predecessor’s legacy as his Socialist opponent. In so many words, he castigated previous right-wing governance as lethargic, content with a stagnating status quo and terrified to rock the boat. His own approach would be the opposite: all vigor, energy, movement. This was l’hyper-président, the dynamo who made a point of calling ministers early on Sunday mornings and went for long jogs in his NYPD t-shirt (one struggles to imagine Chirac in similar attire).
But Sarkozy was—and is—more than a negation, a simple reaction to the past. The unquenchable self-faith that fueled his rise also undergirds a framework for understanding the world. As he told 60 Minutes in a revealing 2007 interview:
Lesley Stahl: You have said: “I have always had to fight throughout my life; nothing ever came easily for me. Nobody ever opened any doors. I got used to that.” Now is that the key to Monsieur Sarkozy?
Sarkozy: That’s not the key just for me. That’s the key for anybody.
Such a weltanschauung meshes perfectly with neoliberal economics: If life is irreducibly competitive, the market is the logical arbiter of outcomes and, as Sarkozy has said, “you have to love success.” To obstruct this natural process would be foolish in any circumstance; for a mid-size country in a hard world, it may be fatal. Sarkozy therefore saw the French economy, with its addiction to government intervention, generous welfare provisions, and low productivity, as in dire need of correction.
This was anathema to the left, of course, but it was also a departure from mainstream economic thinking on the French right, which had from de Gaulle onward basically accepted the need for a large, interventionist state. Sarkozy’s rejection of this consensus was to have lasting consequences. The policy decisions it informed, like weakening the 35-hour workweek and raising the retirement age, did little to improve French economic performance but much to alienate ordinary people, who saw their labor protections and safety net being eroded even as the Great Recession pushed unemployment numbers to new highs. It drove voters to left-wing alternatives, but it also helped to fracture Sarkozy’s support on the right, pitting Anglo-American-style neoliberals against Gaullist dirigistes and working-class conservatives (the latter of whom would increasingly find their way to Marine Le Pen’s National Front).
Aside from his economic heterodoxy, Sarkozy was atypical in other ways: a teetotaler in a nation of wine drinkers, a workaholic among one of the world’s most leisure-addicted political classes, and an admirer of America in a country profoundly uneasy with the “unipolar moment” (hence another of his monikers: Sarko l’Americaine).
This admiration translated into policy. Although Sarkozy’s Atlanticist approach had become unusual by the mid 2000s, it should be said it was not entirely without precedent. In his magisterial biography of Charles de Gaulle, the late journalist Jean Lacouture mentions a dream related to him by Henry Kissinger—a rather bizarre anecdote, but one which neatly frames the choices perennially facing French statesmen on this issue. As Kissinger is supposed to have described it:
I have dreamt of a discussion between the two greatest Frenchmen of the period, Jean Monnet and General de Gaulle. The first said to the other: “Mon Général, you aren’t treating the Americans properly. You raise your voice, you give them orders. I treat them gently and get more out of them as a result.” To which de Gaulle replied: “Don’t be taken in, Monnet! What I grab is of much greater value than what you get granted!”
Sarkozy enthusiastically leaned into the gentle approach. He showered the U.S. with praise and sought to deepen bilateral ties after the chill of the Chirac years. After more than four decades outside, he brought France back into NATO’s unified command structure. And in Libya, he committed French forces to an ill-conceived, American-style intervention to topple Muammar Gaddafi. The results of these moves—a France with less strategic independence, less international sway, and a less stable neighborhood—would seem to vindicate the view of Kissinger’s dream de Gaulle.
The failures and missteps of Sarkozy’s time in power would lead to his becoming the first French president to lose a re-election bid in over thirty years. He was succeeded by François Hollande, who, though he owed his victory to a perception as “Monsieur Normal” after the destructive dynamism of his predecessor, would leave office even more unpopular than Sarkozy.
But it was France’s next leader who would show that he had truly learned from the example of l’hyper-président; in some ways, Macron was Sarkozy’s greatest pupil. Here, for instance, is Sarkozy ahead of the 2007 election, anticipating Macron’s own transcendence of party: “My France is the France of all those who basically don’t know if they are left, right or center, because above all they are just decent French people.” Like Sarkozy, Macron understood the appeal of youthful energy and vigor, especially when these attributes were projected through a savvy media strategy. And in those areas where Sarkozy’s stances were most popular–law and order, cultural values–Macron has tended to take the same firm, “common sense” line.
But Macron surpasses Sarkozy: Macron has finesse; he knows when to stop. And on those occasions when he has overstepped (the fuel tax hike which launched the gilets-jaunes movement, for instance), a combination of tact, flexibility, and good luck has seen him through. Moreover—and here we return to the issue at hand—Macron is clean. He is undoubtedly an egotist, but of the sort who holds himself to the highest standards, rather than the kind whose self-regard can justify anything.
The ultimate truth about Sarkozy’s conviction is that it changes little. Even if he were in a position to bear the standard of the center right in 2022, his prospects in a five-way race against Macron, Le Pen, Mélenchon, and whomever the Socialists nominate would not be promising. Rather, Monday’s verdict neatly bookends an era in which Sarkozy helped shape the contours of France’s political arena.
Whatever one thinks of his accomplishments, his sheer verve commands respect. He may have made the wrong decisions on the most important issues facing his country, but at least he made them brazenly and with style. Perhaps it was Sarkozy’s former mentor who summed him up best: “One of the most gifted talents of his generation,” Chirac wrote in his memoir, but “nervous, impetuous, bubbling over with ambition, doubting nothing, least of all himself.”
Luke Nicastro is a writer and defense analyst based in Northern Virginia.