The shock arrest of former French president Nicolas Sarkozy this week over allegations of corruption has sent shockwaves through France. If convicted, the former “President Bling Bling”, as he was nicknamed by opponents, could face up to ten years in prison on a range of charges, including “active and passive corruption”, “influence peddling”, “forgery and attempted forgery”, “misuse of public funds”, and “money laundering, involvement in and concealing offences”.
On 7 March, Le Monde revealed that Sarkozy and two of his former ministers of the interior had had their phones tapped, a measure which appeared to reveal that Sarkozy and his lawyer had been acquiring information about ongoing investigations thanks to a magistrate, Gilbert Azibert. The latter is implicated in the “Bettencourt affair”, which saw Sarkozy accused of exploiting the mental frailty of L’Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt for campaign funds, in return for a job in Monaco (Sarkozy denied the allegations and his name was removed from a list of those to be charged in the case in late 2013). Further revelations published by Mediapart suggest Sarkozy and his lawyer had several “supporters” within the justice system, as well as in the police.
At the centre of the current controversy lies Sarkozy’s diaries, which have been seized by the authorities in what his lawyers claim is a contravention of presidential immunity, a view disputed by others within the justice system. Although cleared of misconduct in the Bettancourt affair – the case for which the diaries were originally seized – information in them could now be considered critical to other investigations. Specifically, an investigation into alleged Libyan funding for Sarkozy’s 2007 campaign, as well as in the “Tapie-Credit Lyonnais” affair, in which it is alleged that he intervened in favour of the former politician-turned-businessman, Bernard Tapie – an intervention which is said to have resulted in Tapie being awarded a €400m settlement.
Last night, in his first televised interview since losing the 2012 election, Sarkozy pleaded for the future of his political career: “I say to all those who are listening or watching that I have never betrayed them and have never committed an act against the Republic’s principles and the rule of law.” He went on to describe accusations against him as “grotesque”, and responded with counter-accusations of questionable conduct against Justice Minister Christiane Taubira and Prime Minister Manuel Valls. In so doing, he broadened out a relatively narrow political scandal into something that questions the very legitimacy of the French justice system, a move which could damage the reputation of institutions integral to a functional democracy.
There are currently six legal cases hanging over Sarkozy, a string of scandals which suggest cronyism at the highest level and which point to entrenched corruption in French politics. The political class, from left to right, is regularly rocked by allegations of dishonesty. In 2011, former President Jacques Chirac received a two-year suspended sentence for embezzling public funds while mayor of Paris, and in the same year, socialist MP Arnaud Montebourg cautioned that corruption and racketeering were pushing voters towards the Front National. His warning came after a financing scandal engulfed the socialist party’s Pas-de-Calais division, and shortly after the “Guérini affair”, in which a socialist MP was linked to money laundering and an organised crime network.
As part of his presidential campaign manifesto, Francois Hollande declared a crackdown on corruption, stating that “MPs charged with fiscal fraud or corruption will be forbidden from holding public office”. This promise led him part ways just last year with his then budget minister Jérôme Cahuzac over allegations of tax fraud and money laundering. Sarkozy’s own party the UMP has also been mired in a funding scandal, as party officials have admitted to procuring false invoices to cover up overspending in the 2012 presidential campaign, which saw the legal campaign limit of €22.5m exceeded by millions of euros.
Sarkozy denies the allegations and has framed the investigations as a political attack designed to halt his return to politics ahead of the UMP party leadership elections in November. Whatever the outcome of the ongoing investigations, the damage done to trust in public officials will be long-lasting. In the wake of the Front National’s historic success in the European elections, where the party acquired 25 per cent of the vote and more than 20 MEPs, and its relative success in earlier municipal elections, the weakness of the main parties is deeply concerning. The socialist party’s successive political failures and the UMP’s internal disarray should cause neither party to rejoice. The real victors are the oppositional parties, which continue to capitalise on widespread and understandable apathy as a navel-gazing political class remains unable to address some of France’s most basic needs, from reversing a stagnant economy to addressing eye-watering unemployment levels of 10 per cent. Sarkozy may still recover, but the question is whether the political class ever will.