February 11, 2022 - 10:28am

For a man Barack Obama once described as prone to “emotional outbursts”, Nicolas Sarkozy’s involvement in this year’s French campaign has been rather muted.

That is, until the last few days in which the former president has let it be known that he will snub a big rally in northern Paris on Sunday — where Valerie Pécresse, the candidate of his centre-Right party is expected to lay out her “vision” for the future of France.

In private remarks reported in the French media this week, and probably intended to be so, Sarkozy savaged Pécresse’s limp campaign. She is, the former President complained, both “non-existent” and “all over the place”. Worse, from his viewpoint, she often praises the late centre-Right President Jacques Chirac and rarely mentions Sarko.

Sarkozy and Pécresse are expected to meet today to try to clear the air. He has yet to publicly back her campaign. Will he defect to Macron? In the last week, Eric Woerth, 66, who was budget minister under President Nicolas Sarkozy a dozen years ago, announced that he was joining Macron and deserting Pécresse. Natacha Bouchart, 58, the centre-Right mayor of Calais, is following suit.

Sarkozy is unlikely to go full Macron but he can do a great deal of damage to his former camp by sniping from the side-lines. The former French president has had an up-and-down relationship with Macron over the last four and a half years. At present, their relationship is said to be good.  

According to French media Sarkozy is pushing Macron, if re-elected, to appoint a former Sarko protégé as his Prime minister — none other than Christine Lagarde, president of the European Central Bank, former director general of the International Monetary Fund and former French finance minister.

Coupled with the defection of Eric Woerth, these rumours suggest that Sarkozy has privately decided to “vote for” Macron this April.  

Why? This is not just about the inadequacies of the Pécresse campaign. It is part of a wider battle for the soul of the “traditional” French Right and a wider redrawing of the boundaries of French politics.

As I wrote here last month, the defections from Le Pen to Zemmour are best understood as part of a long-term manoeuvre to create a broad, new movement of the hard and nationalist Right. 

Neither of the squabbling far-Right candidates, Le Pen and Zemmour, are likely to win the presidency this year. By creating a new force from their overlapping movements and the harder, Eurosceptic part of Les Républicains, someone — not necessarily Zemmour — could challenge strongly for the presidency in 2027.

If the tectonic plates shift in this way, Sarkozy is said to believe that there is only one way to rescue a strong, pro-European French centre-Right. The moderate wing of Les Républicains must conquer, or merge or ally with, Macron’s centrist movement.

Pécresse, president of the greater Paris region, the Ile de France, is naturally part of the moderate wing of the centre-Right.  She is sinking very slowly  in the polls and currently has around 15% first round support, just behind Le Pen, just ahead of Zemmour and miles behind Macron.

There are still eight weeks to go to the first round. Macron has not formally declared yet and much can happen before 10 April. All the same, if Sarkozy fails clearly to endorse Pécresse after their meeting today, it will be obvious where he sees France’s future.

John Lichfield was Paris correspondent of The Independent for 20 years. Half-English and half-Belgian, he was born in Stoke-on-Trent and lives in Normandy.