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Nicolas Sarkozy: Voluntarism, Hyper-Presidency and Contestation

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Presidents, Prime Ministers and Majorities in the French Fifth Republic

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In this chapter, Marius Mitrache approaches the unique term in office of Nicolas Sarkozy. For the third time in a row, the right wing won the presidential election in 2007. An ambitious reformist leader of the liberal Neo-Gaullists, Sarkozy defeated Ségolène Royal, the Socialist candidate. The main innovation he introduced during his five-year term was to dust off the presidential function by openly assuming the leadership of the political majority and not limiting himself to the position of a constitutional arbitrator, as General de Gaulle had imagined the role of the president. He made ample use of the media to focus the political debate on his personality, stretching the institutional and individual role of the President to a maximum, a stance that came to be known as the “hyper-presidency”.

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  1. 1.

    Aside from a series of politicians who promoted this calendar reversal, such as the centrist François Bayrou (UDF), or the Socialist Robert Badinter (PS), prominent legal scholars were among the most arduous supporters of this change, seeing it as the next logical step after the presidential term was shortened to match the one of the National Assembly. The most vocal among them were Guy Carcassonne, Olivier Duhamel, and Georges Vedel, who signed an op-ed in Le Monde advocating this change, “Ne pas voter la tête à l’envers [Let’s Not Vote with Our Heads Upside Down],” Le Monde, 13 October 2000.

  2. 2.

    Olivier Schrameck, Lionel Jospin’s director of cabinet, explains in his book Matignon rive gauche [Matignon Left Bank], how he lobbied to Jospin the reversal of the electoral order after consultations with legal scholars Carcassonne and Duhamel, as well as with Robert Badinter, and details the context in which Jospin made the decision.

  3. 3.

    For an in-depth analysis of the context and consequences of these two important reforms that were to shape Sarkozy’s own presidency, see the chapter “An Unexpected Journey: The Quinquennat and the Reordering of the Electoral Calendar in France, 2000–2001,” in Camille Bedock’s Reforming Democracy: Institutional Engineering in Western Europe, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017. The inversion of the electoral calendar was officially adopted under the organic law of 15 May 2001.

  4. 4.

    On 29 May 2007, in front of a large crowd in Le Havre, he insisted on his desire to directly administers the affairs of the State: “I have received a mandate from the French people, I said what I am about to do, and I will do it. I admit that’s something new.” See “Déclaration de M. Nicolas Sarkozy, Président de la République, sur la mise en œuvre de son projet présidentiel et la nécessité de disposer d’une large majorité présidentielle à l’Assemblée nationale, Le Havre, le 29 mai 2007” [Statement by Mr. Sarkozy, President of the Republic, on the implementation of his presidential project and the need to have a large presidential majority in the National Assembly, Le Havre on 29 May 2007]; Vie Publique, 29 May 2007, (accessed 20 April 2023).

  5. 5.

    The French people’s receptiveness to the “myth of the monarch” was brilliantly grasped by De Gaulle, who fashioned his own political life accordingly. On this subject, see Sudhir Hazareesingh, In the Shadow of the General: Modern France and the Myth of De Gaulle, and “De Gaulle, le mythe napoléonien, et la consécration de la tradition consulaire républicaine” [De Gaulle, the Napoleonian Myth and the Consecration of the Republican Consular Tradition] in Cahiers Jaures 2008/3 (no. 189) 3–20. The political myth of the monarch was influenced not only by the legacy of the previous kings, but largely by the Bonapartist tradition founded by Napoleon I and his nephew Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, paradoxically France’s first ever President (1848–1852) who would later become Emperor Napoleon III (1852–1870). For a theoretical analysis of Bonapartism as a political practice, associated with plebiscitarian Caesarism, see René Rémond’s seminal and authoritative masterwork Les Droites en France [translated into English as The Right Wing in France: From 1815 to De Gaulle]. For the oft forgotten, but vital role Napoleon III played in shaping the symbolic figure of the President, and for what his attributes should stand for, see the elegant and illuminating volume of Maxime Michelet, L’invention de la présidence de la République: L’oeuvre de Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte [The Invention of the Presidency of the Republic: The Work of Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte], Passés Composés, 2022). Sarkozy’s style of governing was often compared with Bonapartism especially at the beginning of his term, a comparison that came mostly from his critics, since this is not considered a flattering label by those upholding traditional republican values. On this subject, see Dominique Rousseau, Le Consulat Sarkozy [The Sarkozy Consulat], Paris: Odile Jacob, 2012; Alain Duhamel, La marche consulaire [The Consulaire March] Plon, 2010; Nick Hewlett, “Nicolas Sarkozy and the Legacy of Bonapartism. The French Presidential and Parliamentary Elections of 2007,” in Modern & Contemporary France, 15:4, 405–422; Alain Garrigou, “Le sarkozysme est-il un bonapartisme?” [Is Sarkozysm a Bonapartism?] in Le Monde Diplomatique, February 2008.

  6. 6.

    In her biography of Fillon, investigating journalist Christine Kelly states that Sarkozy promised him the premiership as early as the beginning of 2006. For more, see Christine Kelly, François Fillon: coulisses d’une ascension, [François Fillon: the Backstage of an Ascendancy], Paris: L’Archipel, 2017.

  7. 7.

    For a recent biography of the politician who epitomised social Gaullism and the anti-Maastricht right, and his influence in French politics, see the excellent Arnaud Teyssier, Philippe Séguin: Les remords de la droite [Phillippe Séguin: The Remorses of the Right], Paris: Perrin, 2017.

  8. 8.

    The two Fillon governments from May and June 2007 surprisingly included a few graduates from the prestigious École Nationale d’Administration [National School of Administration], the so-called énarques.

  9. 9.

    The fact that during his policy speech, Fillon used the singular pronoun “I” (je) 30 times, and the plural pronoun “We” (nous) 53 times, is a testimony of his loyalty to Sarkozy and his willingness to play second fiddle, but also of his intentions to remain faithful to the reform programme devised together.

  10. 10.

    Prompting former Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin to tease him that he lost “the best part of the job”.

  11. 11.

    The position of general secretary of the Presidency is one of the most influential within the Fifth Republic. Its occupant is the head of the French President’s office. For an overview of a general secretary’s role and a gallery of figures who held this position, including Guéant, see Renaud Revel, Les Cardinaux de la République [The Cardinals of the Republic], Paris: First Editions, 2016.

  12. 12.

    Strangely enough, although Henri Guaino was a former Seguinist like Fillon, their relationship was tense, Guaino preferring Sarkozy’s type of extrovert personality to Fillon’s more introverted one.

  13. 13.

    In 2018, David Martinon became France’s ambassador to Afghanistan, and in August 2021, following the American withdrawal from the country, he organised the exfiltration of several French and Afghan citizens in a highly professional manner. These events are detailed in his memoir Les 15 jours qui ont fait basculer Kaboul [The 15 Days that Made Kabul Fall] Paris: Éditions de l’Observatoire, 2022.

  14. 14.

    According to Claude Goasguen, “President Jacques Chirac used to treat his Prime Ministers similarly, but the difference was that he was doing it on the telephone,” rather than humiliating them publicly like Sarkozy did with Fillon. Quoted in Neila Latrous, Jean-Baptiste Marteau, UMP, ton univers impitoyable [UMP, Your Merciless World], Paris: Flammarion, 2012, based on the authors’ numerous personal conversations with various French politicians.

  15. 15.

    At some point in 2008, even philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy, a sympathiser of Sarkozy’s, wrote an article in Le Point, in which he recalled Ernst Kantorowicz’s famous 1957 work on The King’s Two Bodies, warning President Sarkozy that the next elections would be decided on the issue of the President’s sacred body. The article had some impact, albeit not necessarily on President Sarkozy, but on possible aspirants to the presidency, such as Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, as reported by journalist Ghislaine Ottenheimer in her book Poison présidentiel [Presidential poison]. See Bernard-Henry Lévy, “Sarkozy: quel est le problème?” [Sarkozy: What is the Problem?], Le Point, 6 March 2008, (accessed 20 April 2023).

  16. 16.

    According to the interpretation that Stéphane Rozès, from the Political Analysis Centre (Centre d’Analyse Politique—CAP) delivered to Liliane Delwasse, “The public opinion exploits Fillon by propelling him to the top in the polls, just to tell Sarkozy, in effect, that: we don’t like your behaviour, we want a President who gets involved, ok, but who remains a President, we don’t want bling-bling, profanity, celebrities, or glitter. We don’t want a guy who talks like us. We want someone with an impeccable behaviour, someone dignified, elegant, even distant. We want class. By supporting Fillon, the public opinion essentially told the President [Sarkozy]: this is how he must behave, like the Prime Minister, in a classical, sober, traditional fashion.” Quoted in Liliane Delwasse, Dr. Fillon et Mr. Sarkozy [Dr. Fillon and Mr. Sarkozy], Paris: L’Archipel, 2012.

  17. 17.

    For a behind the scenes view on this subject, with an emphasis on Sarkozy’s and Levitte’s roles, and the hyper-presidentialisation of the foreign policymaking process, see the chapters on the French mediation of the Russo-Georgian War in Vincent Nouzille, Dans les secrets des présidents: CIA, Maison-Blanche, Élysée: les dossiers confidentiels, 1981–2010 [In the Secrets of Presidents: CIA, White House, Élysée: the confidential files, 1981–2010], Paris: Fayard, 2010.

  18. 18.

    On this issue see Jean-Robert Henry, “Sarkozy, the Mediterranean and the Arab Spring,” Contemporary French and Francophone Studies, 16:3—Sarkozy’s France, 2012, 405–415.

  19. 19.

    For an account of Lévy’s role in convincing President Sarkozy to intervene in Libya, see Renaud Girard, “La campagne libyenne de Bernard-Henri Lévy” [The Libyan Campaign of Bernard-Henri Lévy], Le Figaro, 18 March 2011, and Saïd Mahrane, “BHL, l’autre ministre des affaires étrangères,” [BHL, the Other Minister of Foreign Affairs], Le Point, 23 March 2011.

  20. 20.

    On Xavier Musca’s appreciation by Chancellor Merkel and his role in the Euro crisis, see Sophie Fay, “Musca, l’homme qui rassure Merkel” [Musca, the Man who reassures Merkel], L’Obs, 4 November 2011, and Carl Meeus, “Xavier Musca, l’atout euro de Sarkozy” [Xavier Musca, Sarkozy’s Euro Asset], Le Figaro, 9 December 2012.

  21. 21.

    For a thorough analysis of Sarkozy’s reforms, see Jacques de Maillard and Yves Surel (eds.), Les politiques publiques sous Sarkozy [Public Policies under Sarkozy], Paris: Presses de Sciences Po, 2012.

  22. 22.

    Most of the amendments (with some significant rejections) proposed by the Balladur Commission were part of a constitutional law voted by the two Houses of Parliament (the National Assembly and the Senate) both separately and jointly, in a special Congress at Versailles (July 2008), where it passed with an incredibly narrow margin of 539 votes, where the minimum needed to pass the reform was 538. There were speculations about Lang’s crucial role in passing the constitutional reform. Equally important was the contribution of Bernard Accoyer, the National Assembly’s leader, who also participated in the vote, contrary to the customs. For an account of this momentous constitutional reform in the history of the Fifth Republic, see Jack Lang, Le Choix de Versailles: Témoignage sur la révision de la Constitution [The Choice of Versailles: Testimony on the Revision of the Constitution], Paris: Calmann-Levy, 2009.

  23. 23.

    For instance, Articles 5, 20 and 21, which deal with the prerogatives of the President and the government, remained unchanged. Moreover, the relationship between the President and Parliament was not clarified as initially recommended by the Balladur Commission. Proportionality was not implemented in the National Assembly’s elections and the representativeness of the Senate was not reformed.

  24. 24.

    See Sergiu Mişcoiu, “Citoyenneté et identité nationale: les limites du retour au clivage gauche/droite en France lors de l’élection présidentielle de 2007” [Citizenship and National Identity: the Limits of the Return to the Left/Right Divide during the 2007 Presidential Election] in Sergiu Mişcoiu, Bertrand Alliot, and Chantal Delsol (Eds.), Identités politiques et dynamiques partisanes en France [Political Identities and Partisan Dynamics in France], Cluj-Napoca: Editura Fundației pentru Studii Europene, 2009, 184–200.

  25. 25.

    The phrases “Republic bis” and “hyper-Parliament,” which did not catch on, were coined by Guillaume Peltier, who was at that time Copé’s advisor. They were meant to highlight the Parliament’s regained powers, but also to give Copé some concepts to express his stance on Sarkozy’s hyper-presidency. See Aurore Gorius, Michaël Moreau, Les gourous de la com’: Trente ans de manipulations politiques et économiques [The Gurus of Com’: Thirty Years of Political and Economic Manipulations] Paris: La Découverte, 2012 and Marika Mathieu, La Droite forte: Année zéro. Enquête sur les courants d’une droite sans chef [The Strong Right: Year Zero. Inquiry on the Tribes of a Right without Leader] Paris: Éditions de la Martinière, 2013.


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Correspondence to Marius-Mircea Mitrache .

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Mitrache, MM. (2024). Nicolas Sarkozy: Voluntarism, Hyper-Presidency and Contestation. In: Mişcoiu, S., Guigo, PE. (eds) Presidents, Prime Ministers and Majorities in the French Fifth Republic. Palgrave Studies in Presidential Politics. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.

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