Can Nicolas Sarkozy survive mounting funding scandals

The Guardian - 31 March 2012

Allegations of a funding scandal within Britain’s Conservative party have barely been reported in France. That intimate soirées chez David and Samantha Cameron may have been worth hundreds of thousands of pounds towards the prime minister’s career fund is considered trivial in a country where a master of the political backhander was president for 12 years. Jacques Chirac was rightly – if extremely leniently – finally given a two-year suspended sentence in December for embezzlement, abuse of trust, and an illegal conflict of interest. All of his dirty money related in some way to party funding, yet Chirac was still allowed to postpone the ignominy of court appearances until well after his retirement from the Elysée palace in 2007.

Rather than ending the problem of illicit funding, the Chirac convictions merely exposed how institutionalised it was. Cash-filled brown envelopes and secret slush funds dominate French political life in a manner that makes the Tories’ troubles appear pedestrian. How many people in the UK are aware, for example, that Alain Juppé, France’s current foreign secretary, is also a convicted criminal? Juppé received his own (14 months) suspended prison sentence in 2004. A damning judgment said it was “regrettable that Mr Juppé, whose intellectual qualities are unanimously recognised, did not judge it appropriate to assume before justice his entire criminal responsibility and kept on denying established facts.”

Such judicial politesse will be on the mind of Juppé’s current boss, Nicolas Sarkozy, who is now facing a number of devastating inquiries in the run up to the presidential election in April/May. As allegations against Cameron were being published, an examining magistrate said that Liliane Bettencourt, the L’Oréal heiress and France’s richest woman, may have contributed two payments of €400,000 (£335,000) each to Sarkozy’s 2007 election campaign. Both were traced to Swiss accounts, and one was allegedly received by Sarkozy in person.

Serving presidents cannot be prosecuted in France. Chirac added this useful measure into the constitution when his own legal problems started to emerge. Sarkozy has steadfastly refused to comment on l’affaire Bettencourt, but he did at least say a few short words on national TV about claims that he had also been on the payroll of deposed Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi. The colonel is said to have funded Sarkozy’s 2007 presidential campaign to the tune of €50m (£42m). “It’s grotesque and I am sorry that I am being interrogated about declarations of Gaddafi or his son on an important channel like TF1,” Sarkozy snapped.

The Gaddafi accusations are closely linked to the so-called “Karachi affair“, which involves illegal arms sales to Pakistan and the murders of 11 French workers in a bomb attack. It is a crucially important saga and one also centred on party funding. Sarkozy was the campaign spokesman for Édouard Balladur when kickbacks from Pakistanis were said to be secretly paying for Balladur’s own presidential campaign in 1995. In which case, Sarkozy should have answered questions about the scandal with dignity and clarity.

There is so much evidence being massed against Sarkozy that Eva Joly, a former anti-terrorist judge who is now standing against him as Green party candidate for the presidency, said he should waive his immunity from prosecution immediately. This demand may sound like the words of a ruthless political opponent, but remember that Sarkozy’s former treasurer, Eric Woerth, is just one of numerous close associates currently under judicial investigation. Joly said “we now have proof”, pointing towards the “illicit financing of Nicolas Sarkozy’s campaign in 2007” and that this was “very serious for democracy”. Ségolène Royal, Sarkozy’s Socialist rival five years ago, was even more mischievous, saying the main reason Sarkozy was desperate to remain in office this year was because of Bettencourt, Gaddafi and Karachi. Royal suggested that the once sacred office of president was effectively being used to harbour an alleged criminal.

Sarkozy has denied all wrongdoing, but when you consider that his immediate predecessor and one-time mentor used his position as head of state to hide from justice for more than a decade, it is worth taking seriously. Anybody who wants to underplay party funding scandals, whether in France or in Britain, should certainly acknowledge this stark reality.

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