While Socialist President Hollande seems ever weaker, and his predecessor faces charges of influence-peddling, the political winner could well be France's right-wing Front National, writes DW's Christoph Hasselbach.
What's going on with France's political class? There's the Socialist President Francois Hollande, whose approval numbers are in the gutter because he does nothing for fear of hurting anyone. Now, his conservative predecessor and possible future opponent, Nicolas Sarkozy, is facing criminal charges. The accusation is that he tried to bribe a high-ranking state prosecutor.
Meanwhile, Marine Le Pen of the far-right Front National is looking on with pleasure as her political rivals do themselves in. In this spring's European elections, her party became the strongest one in France. It is true that Le Pen has so far been unsuccessful in forming a joint parliamentary fraction in the European Parliament among other right-wing parties. But her real concern is French domestic policy. And the two strongest traditional parties are playing right into her hand - so much so that one could be worried about who is going to lead the country.
Hollande's weakness, the UMP's quarrels
The rather bland Hollande was elected as an anti-Sarkozy. His cocky and occasionally rough attitude, his parvenu-like behavior and his flashy marriage with Carla Bruni got on the nerves of the French. Ultimately, voters decided they would prefer a more "normal" president and selected Hollande. Had he just been normal and boring, then it probably wouldn't have bothered anyone. But the socialist leader remained inactive even as the French economy grew less and less competitive and unemployment rose. Little has changed even today when it comes to the country's economic malaise. But the opposition UMP party has thus far been able to gain political capital from Hollande's weakness, primarily because it faces serious internal divisions.
The humiliated ex-president
The sole UMP politician people seemed to think could both beat Hollande and check the rise of Le Pen was none other than Sarkozy. A few weeks ago, the former president answered a question about whether he would run or not by saying people should read it in his chin. And indeed, his chin has suddenly been clean shaven - as befits a presidential candidate - after hiding under a three-day beard for months. But the images of him being driven to a judge's office as part of the investigation against him could put a dent in his ambitions. Regardless of how the affair turns out legally, Sarkozy suffered public humiliation. Furthermore, there's a series of further accusations against him that fit all too well with the image of him as an egotistical politician. The party's base may believe him that he's the victim of political intrigue, but the majority of French voters do not want to see Sarkozy back in Elysee Palace.
Lacking the right candidate
Should Sarkozy manage to convince his party and emerge as the UMP's 2017 presidential candidate, France could find itself in a delicate situation. Francois Hollande's reputation is so tarnished that he can really only lose. Sarkozy will divide the country. Marine Le Pen, on the other hand, will say she's much different from the country's established politicians who only really care about themselves, rather than the people. In the 2002 presidential election, Le Pen's father, Jean-Marie, surprisingly made it to a run-off against incumbent Jacques Chirac. At the time, the conservative Chirac secured an easy victory, thanks in part to many left-leaning voters who wanted to prevent Le Pen from taking office. If the same scenario were to repeat itself between Le Pen and Sarkozy, the outcome would be uncertain. That's because Sarkozy polarizes so much and also because the Front National has meanwhile become a publicly acceptable party among many French. The UMP needs to find a unifying but still reform-minded party leader with integrity to run in 2017. As such, an appeal to the party: Don't settle too soon on Sarkozy!