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Sarkozy: Abrasive, divisive and running again to lead France

Sarkozy 1
Paris, France | AFP |

Nicolas Sarkozy, who has launched a bid to regain the presidency four years after telling voters they had seen the back of him for good, is one of the most abrasive figures in French politics.

Beaten in 2012 by Francois Hollande, Sarkozy, 61, returned to frontline politics in 2014 and has been preparing for months to take his revenge on the Socialist president in next May’s election.

In typical style, he has been openly dismissive of his successor, describing Hollande in a behind-the-scenes book as “having no class — he eats French fries”.

The son of a Hungarian immigrant father, the centre-right Sarkozy earned the nickname of the “bling-bling” president for his public taste for money and the trappings of office.

Breaking a longstanding taboo, Sarkozy also put his private life on display, divorcing his second wife while in office and publicly wooing supermodel and former singer Carla Bruni.

He married Bruni in 2008 and they had a daughter, Giulia, a few months before the 2012 election.

But by the end of his five years in office, he was scoring some of the lowest popularity ratings for a post-war French leader. Only Hollande has scored lower.

A host of legal troubles has failed to deter Sarkozy’s bid to take care of what he considers unfinished business, although he will first have to win a primary in November.

He became the first former head of state to be taken into custody for questioning when he was charged with corruption, influence peddling and violation of legal secrecy in July 2014.

In what is potentially the most damaging case, he is accused of conspiring with his lawyer to give a magistrate a lucrative job in exchange for inside information on a different corruption probe against him, in conversations on a secret phone registered under an assumed name.
‘Loses his temper’

Lest anyone doubted it, age has not mellowed Sarkozy’s confrontational style — or unshakeable belief in his ability.

His supporters see his abrasive approach as a manifestation of his combative nature but his detractors suggest he has always lacked the self-control required of a head of state.

“Nicolas Sarkozy loses his temper. Saying the right thing when faced with a threat does not mean tipping over into populism,” Socialist Prime Minister Manuel Valls said recently.

In preparation for a bid, Sarkozy has been burnishing his action man image. He was pictured on a racing bike this summer during holidays at the sumptuous villa of Bruni’s family in the south of France.

Sarkozy won the presidency aged only 52 and was initially seen as injecting a much-needed dose of dynamism, making a splash on the international scene and wooing the corporate world.

It was partly his relationship with Bruni, coupled with his brash approach, that earned Sarkozy the “bling-bling” moniker.

French heads of state were once supposed to rise above the political fray, but Sarkozy was accused by opponents of cheapening the office.

He is still angered at criticism of his five years in power which were dominated by the 2008 financial crisis and its fallout.

Sarkozy likes to claim that he “saved Europe, if not the world, from a major crisis”.

After his humiliating 2012 defeat by Hollande, Sarkozy famously promised that “you won’t hear about me anymore” before he went off to make money on the international conference circuit.

Few observers were surprised though when he returned to frontline politics in 2014, standing for and winning the leadership of the conservative UMP party, now renamed the Republicans.

His acid tongue has also not spared Alain Juppe, the 71-year-old former prime minister expected to be his main challenger in the primary.

“He’s ten years older than me… he makes me look young,” Sarkozy said.

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