Conor Cruise O’Brien once famously said of Ireland’s most scandal-hit prime minister Charlie Haughey that he would not believe his political career to be dead unless he found him bured at a crossroads with a stake through his heart. Even then, he added, he would continue to wear a clove of garlic round his neck, just in case.
The same might perhaps be said of Nicolas Sarkozy, the former French President and three-time aspirant to the Elysée Palace, who having come third in last November’s centre-right primary to two former prime ministers, François Fillon and Alain Juppé, had reluctantly agreed to spend more time with his investments.
But now, with Fillon due to appear next week before an examining magistrate appointed to investigate potentially lethal allegations of financial corruption, and with Juppé ruling himself out as the replacement candidate, Sarkozy lives again.
In a development recalling the moment when Carrie’s bloodied hand shot out of the grave in the final scene of the celebrated horror movie, Sarkozy has reached out to once more grasp the reins of power. True, all he has done, officially, in the last 24 hours is to propose a meeting with Fillon to try to find a way out of the impasse caused by the latter’s stubborn refusal to accept the inevitable.
But it is hard to believe that if the call goes out from the party faithful for one to emerge who can save the conservative cause from annihilation at the polls that Sarkozy will not, in all humility, rise to the challenge.
Everything depends on Fillon, who seems determined to go down fighting, appealing above his party and above the courts to the bar of public opinion. Until Le Canard Enchainée revealed in January that the 63-year-old arch-Catholic conservative had paid his wife and children close to a million euros out of state funds for work that appears more notional than actual, Fillon had looked to be the presidential front-runner. He would sweep both the centre-left candidate Emmanuel Macron and the Socialist nominee Benoit Hamon out of contention in the first round of voting and go on triumph over Marine Le Pen, the pugnacious leader of the Front National.
The was the point at which Le Canard Enchainée dropped its bombshell and all smiles stopped together. In Paris on Sunday, Fillon made a brave but, one suspects, futile attempt to retrieve his position, appealing to thousands of flag-waving patriots who either did not believe the allegations made against their hero or else thought them than a matter of slight account. He spoke well, with courage and dignity, yet as the rain fell on his parade, plastering his hair and adding a sheen to the shoulders of his Savile Row suit, he looked a beaten man.
If, against the odds, he should emerge from his upcoming legal hearing with his reputation restored, all bets will once again be off. He might even profit electorally from his ordeal. But if, as expected, he loses out to the forensic probing of the magistrate or, worse, if he should be formally indicted, along with his wife, then Sarkozy’s day may just come again.
How the King of Bling would fair in a head-to-head against Le Pen is another matter entirely. What is not in doubt is that his revival would add yet another twist to an already remarkable chapter in French presidential politics.