The new republic’s a non-starter at Sarko’s sleazy court

The London Evening Standard - 09 July 2010
When the sometimes frighteningly energetic life force that is Nicolas Sarkozy moved into the Elysée Palace just three years ago, his stated mission was to revolutionise France.

A self-styled radical conservative in the Thatcher mould, the president said he would force a “rupture” from his country’s traditionally quasi-monarchical political class and forge a “republic beyond reproach”.

Just look at him now. Unable to shift his lifelong reputation as a “bling-bling” chancer, the diminutive head of state finds himself at the centre of a criminal investigation into illegal cash payments.

Prosecutors are sifting through the bank accounts of Liliane Bettencourt, the 87-year-old billionaire L’Oréal heiress, who is said to have handed “manila envelopes stuffed with cash” to her powerful friends, and especially Sarkozy, at otherwise refined dinner parties.

Claire Thibout, Mrs Bettencourt’s former accountant, is said to have told police: “Everyone in the household knew that Sarkozy also saw the Bettencourts for money. He was a regular visitor.” Sarkozy denies all the allegations, with lawyers on both sides accusing each other of lying about what went on.

Whatever the truth, there is no doubt that Sarkozy has done himself no favours since winning the presidency with a campaign of “Work more, to earn more”. There was no exertion whatsoever involved in the 140 per cent pay rise he awarded himself on attaining office, nor in the luxury cruise which he immediately enjoyed on the £1 million yacht of Vincent Bolloré, another billionaire buddy.

A swift third marriage to Carla Bruni, a rich heiress in her own right, did not help Sarkozy’s aim to portray himself as a modest grafter either. France, meanwhile, began to sink into recession, with unemployment well above 10 per cent and the cost of living rocketing.

Whatever its outcome, the so-called L’Affaire Bettencourt has confirmed exactly what side of France Sarkozy aspires to assist. When he sacked two ministers earlier this month for spending 12,000 of taxpayers’ money on Cuban cigars and hiring luxury private jets to visit Third World disaster zones, it was not because Sarkozy disapproved of their high living.

He was trying to draw attention away from his own problems and those of cabinet colleague Eric Woerth, who is said to have helped Mrs Bettencourt to avoid tax.

Such revelations emerged from the trial of François-Marie Banier, the flamboyant photographer accused of exploiting Mrs Bettencourt’s poor mental state by taking almost £1 billion worth of “gifts” from her, including a private island in the Seychelles.

The case revolves around 21 hours of tapes recorded by Mrs Bettencourt’s former butler, which are said to expose all kinds of underhand collusion between the billionaire and her fawning allies at the Elysée.

Conveniently for Sarkozy, an incumbent president cannot face prosecution. He could also point to the fact that almost all of his predecessors, from François Mitterrand to Jacques Chirac, were regularly troubled by allegations of financial sleaze.

The president will bluster through his latest set of problems, as he has always done. But as far as Sarko’s French Revolution is concerned, L’Affaire Bettencourt simply confirms that it never really began.

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