PARIS — He is straight out of Shakespeare, driven by the desire to recapture the throne and, at the very least, his dignity.
After a humiliating defeat in 2012, Nicolas Sarkozy — a very French blend of tabloid celebrity and professional tough guy — wants to be president again. In a France plagued by economic malaise and an unprecedented security threat, the nominally center-right politician has launched a campaign that is a textbook example of an increasingly global phenomenon: mainstream politicians pushed to the right to court voters from powerful populist fringes.
As conservative contenders for France’s top job went live in their first primary debate Thursday night, the country found itself in the throes of a contest that already resembles the American election. While Republicans are pressed to defend Donald Trump’s endless controversial comments, Sarkozy, 61, has started parroting Marine Le Pen, saying things that, before 2016, only the leaders of her extremist National Front ever dared to utter.
Radical rhetoric is now as much a reality in France as it is in the United States.
Nowhere is this clearer than in the former president’s frequent proclamations against Muslims. France’s largest religious minority, Sarkozy would have his followers believe, is at the root of the country’s recent string of terrorist attacks as well as its apparent “crisis” in national identity.
With a stagnant French economy and the country situated in an increasingly troubled euro zone, Sarkozy has chosen national identity as the central theme of his presidential campaign. His goal, as he explained in a blockbuster book released in January, is “the restoration of the nation.” But his definition of that “restoration” seems to require the explicit stigmatization of French Muslims.
“It is not with religions that the Republic has difficulties today, but with one of them that has not done the work, necessary as well as inevitable, to integrate,” he wrote.
Across the spectrum of French politics, this is rapidly becoming a consensus in the wake of terrorist attacks linked to or inspired by the Islamic State. Even François Hollande, France’s Socialist president, has conceded that “France has a problem with Islam.”
But only Le Pen has ever said anything as direct. “No other religion is causing problems,” she declared during the social drama of the “burkini,” the bathing suit that shook the foundations of France’s secular values in late August.
In that affair, too, Sarkozy projected the image of a conservative largely in line with the National Front. When observers around the world recoiled in horror over the widely disseminated images of armed French police officers forcing a Muslim woman to undress on a beach near Nice, he emerged as the most stalwart defender of the controversial burkini ban.
Even after France’s highest court ruled in favor of a woman’s right to dress modestly on a beach, Sarkozy called the burkini a “provocation” and promised that, as president, he would extend the ban even further, from a few districts to the entire nation.
“I refuse to let the burkini impose itself in French beaches and swimming pools. . . . There must be a law to ban it throughout the Republic’s territory,” he said at a rally in late August. But he went further, painting the swimsuit as a broader threat to the French nation: “Our identity is under threat when we accept an immigration policy that makes no sense.”
Again, his principal political ally was the National Front — a party he claimed to have eradicated altogether when he won the presidency in 2007.
Analysts explain Sarkozy’s recent turn toward the far right as the last resort of a politician trailing the conservative front-runner, the more moderate Alain Juppé. Juppé is leading Sarkozy by 8 to 14 points in the most recent polls taken after Thursday’s debate.
More than a month before the primary, Sarkozy is already in crisis mode. Once loathed for what the French still call his “bling-bling” lifestyle and his pursuit while in office of the supermodel Carla Bruni, who is now his third wife, he is currently facing allegations of major accounting fraud in his last campaign.
In Thursday’s debate, he was on the defensive, twitching on camera and fending off attacks from the other contenders, four of whom had served as ministers in his own cabinet.
Some say Sarkozy’s embrace of more-extreme positions illustrates the rising power of a political faction that is no longer fringe.
“The National Front has become a force to be reckoned with in French politics,” said Bruno Cautrès, a political scientist at Sciences Po in Paris. “In any number of democracies around the world, we are seeing a rejection of globalization, which in France has opened up so many divides inside. The message of the National Front is that it’s possible to live against forces of globalization and modernization.”
To French Muslims, the former president has begun to seem like a French version of Donald Trump, a candidate behind in the polls who, in their eyes, has opened up a Pandora’s box of harsh rhetoric that will survive even if his candidacy does not.
“Imagine that Donald Trump loses the election,” said Marwan Muhammad, the director of the Collective Against Islamophobia in France. “You cannot take away the reality that this person has been occupying all this media attention and destroying something we share together.”
“In France,” he added, “these debates have been so toxic that it will have a lasting effect. There is no coming back from it.”