BOULOGNE-BILLANCOURT, France — Two years after losing the Élysée Palace to the Socialists, Nicolas Sarkozy is hoping to stage a historic comeback by swinging further to the political right.
In the United States, the tea party revolution may be cooling. But in Europe, Sarkozy’s shift is a sign of the times. He and other European conservatives have found themselves caught in a political no man’s land, between their traditional opponents on the left and the rising fortunes of the far right.
Their apparent answer: If you can’t beat the nationalists and populists, then start to sound more like them.
The animated president of France from 2007 to 2012, Sarkozy passed his first goalpost on Saturday — winning a vote for the leadership of his center-right Union for a Popular Movement party, known as the UMP. It came after a campaign he waged through town hall meetings and appearances across France and in which the debonair 59-year-old has unveiled pledges seemingly aimed at currying favor with voters flirting with the far right.
Angry about immigration? Don’t worry, he says, he may just pull France out of a treaty that allows passport- and visa-free travel between 26 nations in Europe. Don’t like France’s new law legalizing gay marriage? Sarkozy is now vowing to repeal it. Not happy with the European Union? He now says he wants its powers cut in half.
Sarkozy has ostensibly been campaigning only for his party’s leadership. But the race has been tinted with far more ambition. At a recent rally in this wealthy Paris suburb, ubiquitous campaign posters simply dubbed him “My President.” Many observers see signs of a grand plan to reclaim the presidency in 2017 by staging the biggest comeback in French politics since Charles de Gaulle’s return to power in the 1950s.
“I am not here to be the chosen candidate of journalists,” Sarkozy said. “I am here to be carried by the French people.”
By hardening his stances on immigration in particular, Sarkozy is following a trail being blazed by other European conservatives facing challenges from the far right, including British Prime Minister David Cameron. But in France, at least, there are early signs the strategy may not be working — suggesting a complicated path ahead for European conservatives.
True, Sarkozy won on Saturday, taking 64.5 percent of the vote of party loyalists. But that is significantly lower than the 80 percent analysts said he needed to prove a resounding victory.
And his top rival for the party’s ticket in 2017 — the mayor of Bordeaux and former prime minister Alain Juppé — did not run, making his route to victory less arduous.
Worse, opinion polls show Sarkozy is failing to connect with French voters beyond his core supporters. One survey conducted this month by the CSA polling firm showed him with a national approval rating of only 35 percent, down from 39 percent in September.
The anti-immigrant nationalists led by Marine Le Pen have never been stronger here. Yet Sarkozy’s apparent decision to court supporters of her National Front seems to be backfiring by turning off more centrist voters.
“It is not a good strategy to go out there and promise the same proposals as the National Front with slight changes,” said Bruno Le Maire, a UMP stalwart who ran against Sarkozy on Saturday. “We as a party have to come up with our own political path, and that cannot mean following the National Front.”
Sarkozy’s bigger problem may be that voters who support far-right parities tend to distrust traditional politicians, and he is still firmly viewed as one. He also remains stained by allegations of violating campaign finance laws — charges he denies. In addition, he has received significant criticism for suggesting he may dissolve the UMP — a center-right alliance forged under President Jacques Chirac in 2002 — before the 2017 elections in order to launch a new party instead. Although Sarkozy has said the move would reinvigorate the center-right, critics see it as simply an attempt to sidestep a primary with the more moderate Juppé in 2016 — a contest that polls suggest Sarkozy would resoundingly lose if held today.
Sarkozy has long championed policies cherished by some conservatives, including slashing inheritance taxes. While president, he pushed through a “burqa ban” on full Islamic face coverings in public and cracked down on Gypsy camps, expelling thousands to their birthplaces in Eastern Europe.
But at least initially in his political career, he was also seen as a social moderate intent on preserving the European Union. He promised, but never acted on, civil unions for gay couples. And during the European debt crisis that started in 2010, he desperately fought alongside German Chancellor Angela Merkel to hold the E.U., as well as the euro currency union, together.
Since declaring his return to politics in September, however, Sarkozy has notably shifted right, apparently seeking to make sure UMP voters such as Vincent Delongeaux do not defect to the growing ranks of the far-right National Front. A 35-year-old worker in the French energy sector who came to hear Sarkozy speak recently, Delongeaux opposes same-sex marriage and says he is deeply worried about immigration and the economy. But he is also not yet convinced Sarkozy is the answer.
“He had five years to do all this before, and he didn’t,” Delongeaux said. “I’m still not sure about him.”
And yet, analysts say, a moderate right may be the only force in France able to counter what would be a game changer in European politics — the rise of the National Front’s Le Pen to the presidency in 2017.
Her chances of leading France were once viewed as non-existent. But she can no longer be counted out. Her party’s anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim and anti-free-trade platform — along with its zero-tolerance position on crime — is winning over new adherents, particularly as Le Pen has sought to sanitize the National Front, moving away from the hate speech employed by her father and the party’s former leader, Jean-Marie Le Pen.
There are fewer obstacles to her rise in part because the left here is fractured and lost. Support for the Socialists is collapsing under the unpopular presidency of François Hollande. The country is widely seen to be in the midst of a national malaise, with a stagnant economy and rising fears of homegrown terror from hundreds of French nationals who have gone to fight in Syria and Iraq.
“I don’t think Sarkozy will be France’s answer,” said Dominique Moisi, senior adviser at the Paris-based French Institute for International Relations. “He still hasn’t realized the extent to which the French rejected him in 2012, and the truth is, while they may be deeply disappointed in François Hollande, they have not changed their mind about him.”
Virgile Demoustier contributed to this report.