Nicolas Sarkozy appears on television to protest his innocence. Photo: Getty
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Nicolas Sarkozy may recover from his latest scandal, but the political class will not be so lucky

Whatever the outcome of the ongoing corruption investigations, the damage done to trust in public officials will be long-lasting.

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.

Myriam Francois-Cerrah is a freelance journalist and broadcaster (France, Middle East and North Africa, Islam) and a DPhil candidate in Middle Eastern studies at Oxford University.

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How Donald Trump is slouching towards the Republican nomination

There was supposed to be a ceiling above which Trump’s popular support could not climb.

In America, you can judge a crowd by its merchandise. Outside the Connecticut Convention Centre in Hartford, frail old men and brawny moms are selling “your Trump 45 football jerseys”, “your hats”, “your campaign buttons”. But the hottest item is a T-shirt bearing the slogan “Hillary sucks . . . but not like Monica!” and, on the back: “Trump that bitch!” Inside, beyond the checkpoint manned by the Transportation Security Administration and the secret service (“Good!” the man next to me says, when he sees the agents), is a family whose three kids, two of them girls, are wearing the Monica shirt.

Other people are content with the shirts they arrived in (“Waterboarding – baptising terrorists with freedom” and “If you don’t BLEED red, white and blue, take your bitch ass home!”). There are 80 chairs penned off for the elderly but everyone else is standing: guys in motorcycle and military gear, their arms folded; aspiring deal-makers, suited, on cellphones; giggling high-school fatsos, dressed fresh from the couch, grabbing M&M’s and Doritos from the movie-theatre-style concession stands. So many baseball hats; deep, bellicose chants of “Build the wall!” and “USA!”. (And, to the same rhythm, “Don-ald J!”)

A grizzled man in camouflage pants and combat boots, whose T-shirt – “Connecticut Militia III%” – confirms him as a member of the “patriot” movement, is talking to a zealous young girl in a short skirt, who came in dancing to “Uptown Girl”.

“Yeah, we were there for Operation American Spring,” he says. “Louis Farrakhan’s rally of hate . . .”

“And you’re a veteran?” she asks. “Thank you so much!”

Three hours will pass. A retired US marine will take the rostrum to growl, “God bless America – hoo-rah!”; “Uptown Girl” will play many more times (much like his speeches, Donald J’s playlist consists of a few items, repeated endlessly), before Trump finally looms in and asks the crowd: “Is this the greatest place on Earth?”

There was supposed to be a ceiling above which Trump’s popular support could not climb. Only a minority within a minority of Americans, it was assumed, could possibly be stupid enough to think a Trump presidency was a good idea. He won New Hampshire and South Carolina with over 30 per cent of the Republican vote, then took almost 46 per cent in Nevada. When he cleaned up on Super Tuesday in March, he was just shy of 50 per cent in Massachusetts; a week later, he took 47 per cent of the votes in Mississippi.

His rivals, who are useless individually, were meant to co-operate with each other and the national party to deny him the nomination. But Trump won four out of the five key states being contested on “Super-Duper Tuesday” on 15 March. Then, as talk turned to persuading and co-opting his delegates behind the scenes, Trump won New York with 60 per cent.

Now, the campaign is trying to present Trump as more “presidential”. According to his new manager, Paul Manafort, this requires him to appear in “more formal settings” – without, of course, diluting “the unique magic of Trump”. But whether or not he can resist denouncing the GOP and the “corrupt” primary system, and alluding to violence if he is baulked at at the convention, the new Trump will be much the same as the old.

Back in Hartford: “The Republicans wanna play cute with us, right? If I don’t make it, you’re gonna have millions of people that don’t vote for a Republican. They’re not gonna vote at all,” says Trump. “Hopefully that’s all, OK? Hopefully that’s all, but they’re very, very angry.”

This anger, which can supposedly be turned on anyone who gets in the way, has mainly been vented, so far, on the protesters who disrupt Trump’s rallies. “We’re not gonna be the dummies that lose all of our jobs now. We’re gonna be the smart ones. Oh, do you have one over there? There’s one of the dummies . . .”

There is a frenzied fluttering of Trump placards, off to his right. “Get ’em out! . . . Don’t hurt ’em – see how nice I am? . . . They really impede freedom of speech and it’s a disgrace. But the good news is, folks, it won’t be long. We’re just not taking it and it won’t be long.”

It is their removal by police, at Trump’s ostentatious behest, that causes the disruption, rather than the scarcely audible protesters. He seems to realise this, suddenly: “We should just let ’em . . . I’ll talk right over them, there’s no problem!” But it’s impossible to leave the protesters where they are, because it would not be safe. His crowd is too vicious.

Exit Trump, after exactly half an hour, inclusive of the many interruptions. His people seem uplifted but, out on the street, they are ambushed by a large counter-demonstration, with a booming drum and warlike banners and standards (“Black Lives Matter”; an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, holding aloft Trump’s severed head). Here is the rest of the world, the real American world: young people, beautiful people, more female than male, every shade of skin colour. “F*** Donald Trump!” they chant.

After a horrified split-second, the Trump crowd, massively more numerous, rallies with “USA!” and – perplexingly, since one of the main themes of the speech it has just heard was the lack of jobs in Connecticut – “Get a job!” The two sides then mingle, unobstructed by police. Slanging matches break out that seem in every instance to humiliate the Trump supporter. “Go to college!” one demands. “Man, I am in college, I’m doin’ lovely!”

There is no violence, only this: some black boys are dancing, with liquid moves, to the sound of the drum. Four young Trump guys counter by stripping to their waists and jouncing around madly, their skin greenish-yellow under the street lights, screaming about the building of the wall. There was no alcohol inside; they’re drunk on whatever it is – the elixir of fascism, the unique magic of Trump. It’s a hyper but not at all happy drunk.

As with every other moment of the Trump campaign so far, it would have been merely some grade of the cringeworthy – the embarrassing, the revolting, the pitiful – were Trump not slouching closer and closer, with each of these moments, to his nomination. 

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism