The Guardian view on Nicolas Sarkozy: another name on the roll of dishonour | Editorial

French society is no longer prepared to tolerate a culture of impunity at the top of politics

In all likelihood, next year’s presidential election in France will come down – as the last one did – to a contest between Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen, the leader of Rassemblement National. This confrontation between Mr Macron’s liberal centrism and the far-right nationalism of Ms Le Pen is the current default setting of French politics. The traditional struggle between French socialists and conservatives for occupancy of the Elysée has, for now, been consigned to the past.

Perhaps at least part of the explanation for that can be found in the proceedings of France’s criminal justice system. Nicolas Sarkozy will appeal against Monday’s humiliating verdict by a Paris court, which found him guilty of corruption and influence peddling. But if the judgment – and an unprecedented prison sentence – is upheld, the former conservative president will join the centre-right’s presidential candidate of 2017, François Fillon, in a lengthening roll of dishonour. Three years ago, Mr Fillon was leading in the presidential polls, until it was revealed that about €1m from the public purse had been illegally paid to his wife and members of his family. The fortunes of his party have yet to fully recover.

On the left, the Socialist former budget minister Jérôme Cahuzac was found guilty of tax fraud in 2016 and given a three-year sentence. Mr Cahuzac had been entrusted by President François Hollande with the launch of a high-profile crackdown on tax evasion, and the manner of his fall was a hammer blow for his party. The implosion of the two main forces on the centre-right and centre-left paved the way for Mr Macron’s astonishingly rapid rise. As the fresh-faced leader of a new party in 2017, he positioned himself in the right place at the right time.

A clean-up of the French political establishment was overdue. As this week’s extraordinary court drama indicated, postwar deference towards the sharp practice of the country’s elite, past and present, has long gone. Mr Sarkozy was found guilty of attempting to bribe a magistrate. A further trial, beginning later this month, will rule on alleged overspending during his 2012 re-election campaign. Whatever the result of his appeal, it seems certain that the former president’s political career is over.

The fall of the ancien regime has, however, created its own dangers. Apparently undamaged by her own party’s corruption scandals, Ms Le Pen has, for the time being, eclipsed her rivals on the centre-right. Polls suggest a much tighter runoff with Mr Macron in next year’s election. One possible Socialist candidate for 2022, the Paris mayor, Anne Hidalgo, scored 8% in a recent presidential poll. But growing numbers of disillusioned leftwing voters are reportedly reluctant to vote for Mr Macron a second time, even if that risks handing power to the far right. French politics needed reforming. But sooner or later, a revival of mainstream parties of both right and left will be needed if Ms Le Pen and her successors are to be kept at bay.

Contributor

Editorial

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