President Bling and the scandals that won't go away
While Nicolas Sarkozy's recent arrest is unlikely to derail his political comeback, how many controversies can the man the French left loves to hate really afford?
Nicolas Sarkozy's enemies, and he has many, had hoped for a perp walk, a Dominique Strauss-Kahn moment: their bête noire in handcuffs between two flics, with no tie or shoelaces, being snapped at the instant of defeat by a hundred press photographers, before being ignominiously arraigned.
That, at least, was (and still is) the plan: to ring the death-knell of a political career, started at 18, which brought this brash son of a Hungarian émigré to the leadership of the party founded by General de Gaulle, then to the Presidency of the French Republic in 2007, at the age of 52.
It may yet happen, but anyone watching Sarkozy's 20-minute TV interview last Tuesday week, on the day he'd been charged with allegedly trading favours and breaching judicial confidentiality, could tell that to the former president, the fight had just begun, and he was relishing it.
Looking sombre but dapper in a Arnys suit and dark tie, Sarkozy hit back at his judges, one of whom had signed open letters against his candidacy in 2012; and at his adversaries, calling the accusations against him a "political manoeuvre". It was vintage Sarko: behind the clear, cogent arguments – he always was a master communicator – you could tell he was barely holding back his fury. Gone was the fashionable three-day stubble he had taken to sporting , appearing next to his wife Carla Bruni (Nadine Morano MEP, a colourful former minister and one of Sarko's last faithful, tweeted "Sarkozy is clean-shaven! That means he's back"). The dilettante look had only ever been skin-deep anyway: few French politicians have ever been as focused.
The previous night, Sarkozy had been held and interrogated by police for 15 hours. Now, this former interior minister was careful to exclude the police from any hint of accusation, commending the "professional" way they had behaved, connecting to the constituency that had always trusted him on law and order.
"Sarkozy is far from dead politically: what doesn't kill him makes him stronger," says Philippe Moreau Chevrolet, one of France's shrewdest young political analysts. "He wasn't trying to convince left-wing voters; he was speaking to his own voters. And the spectacular way in which he was taken into custody has served him here: it makes him a martyr."
At a time when Marine Le Pen draws most of her successes from her anti-establishment stance, turning Nicolas Sarkozy into a lone warrior is playing into his long-term strategy.
Moreau Chevrolet also believes – and has the polls to prove it – that the French aren't very shocked by the latest accusations (the "favour" Sarkozy is alleged to have offered judge Gilbert Azibert for allegedly keeping him informed on how his case was going was a possible job in the Monaco judiciary, which never materialised).
"There are, by contrast, other scandals with a far higher potential to harm Sarkozy, but this has pushed them away from the spotlight," says Moreau Chevrolet. "If there is a plot, it is spectacularly ill-conceived," .
Among the things he is accused of is alleged double-billing, to the tune of €17m by Bygmalion, a PR outfit used by his UMP party, which might have help overcome campaign finance limitations in Sarkozy's 2012 run.
Bygmalion wasn't actually hired by Sarkozy, but if true, the implications are that he was either ignorant to the point of incompetence, or dishonest and corrupt.
And that's only one of his many casseroles – the French slang term for a misdeed that comes back to haunt you, making the rattling noise of old pans dragged behind a car.
He is also accused of receiving covert financing for his victorious 2007 campaign from Muammar Gaddafi, the former Libyan dictator ("we were at war with Libya for 18 months," Sarkozy counters, "don't you think Gaddafi would have used this against me then?").
Then there's the Bernard Tapie case, in which Sarkozy is accused of having supported, through his finance minister Christine Lagarde (now head of the IMF) a lucrative arbitration that enabled Tapie, a controversial businessman, to receive €403m in compensation in a conflict with a then-nationalised bank.
Another very old casserole dates back 20 years, to when Sarkozy was budget minister under conservative PM Edouard Balladur. Balladur, his defence minister, chief of staff and a couple of advisers are accused of having received Pakistani and Saudi bribes in the course of several large arms contracts.
Sarkozy isn't charged with anything here, but he was budget minister as well as Balladur's closest political ally: judges want to hear him as a witness (the case is seen as dramatic in France because a car bomb near the French Embassy in Karachi killed a dozen French nationals, allegedly because some of the bribes had not been paid).
Finally, there's the Bettencourt case. L'Oréal heiress Liliane Bettencourt was alleged to have given a brown paper envelope filled with cash to Sarkozy before his first presidential run. Judges seized Sarkozy's private papers and appointment diaries, but failed to find any evidence. He has been formally cleared of all charges.
Any one of these casseroles could be the end of a lesser politician, and the accumulation may yet defeat Sarkozy. It certainly helps polarise attitudes against him: few French politicians have been so unloved. Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, François Mitterrand and François Hollande all had or have enemies and bitter adversaries. But with Sarko, it's personal. Otherwise calm, seemingly rational people tell you, apropos of nothing, they would like to push a stake through his heart.
Judge Claire Thépaut, one of his two investigating magistrates, called him a destroyer of justice and democracy in an open letter she signed with other members of her union, the Left-wing Syndicat de La Magistrature.
Only Sarkozy has the power to turn calm, elderly academics such as Monique and Michel Pinçon-Charlot into Marxist firebrands, fulminating at the former president's habits, friends, manners, clothes, likes and dislikes, even his musical tastes (middle-of-the-road French pop of the Johnny Hallyday vintage).
It might not have come to that. When a 28-year-old Sarkozy first impinged on the French national consciousness, it was as mayor of Neuilly, an affluent Paris suburb during a hostage situation in a municipal school. Sarkozy stepped into the middle of the stand-off, negotiating unarmed with the gunman, offering to come in if the children were released, which they were. Jacques Chirac, the-then Gaullist leader took note.
The bling issue still hadn't surfaced a decade later, when Sarkozy served as one of France's most successful interior ministers. The police loved him, which was to be expected. So, to everyone's surprise, did the préfets – the mandarins in charge of governing the French départements and regions. The préfets usually have a policed, cautious manner, but Sarkozy was brash and impatient with the formalities ruling most French organisations. Yet he got things done, and more than one préfet described him to me as having a clear vision of how the country should be run.
For all those years, Sarkozy's most faithful and efficient deputy was his second wife Cecilia, a tall and striking brunette who handled his communications and most of his staff management with an iron hand. She liked, if not bling, then certainly luxury.
It was Cecilia who pushed Sarkozy to his first, probably fatal, bling mistake. Rather than gather his friends and supporters at their home in Neuilly on the evening he won the presidential election, she chose to give a dinner for the most prominent of them at Le Fouquet's, a Champs-Elysées restaurant which had been a film-crowd watering hole that was acquired by a luxury hotel and casino chain.
One of the reasons was that she could no longer stand the political crowd and didn't want to have them at her home. Another was that she was, in fact, in the process of leaving Sarkozy.
The new president was shattered by the prospect of her leaving: he paid scant attention to the location or the guest list, his usual political acumen off; and when she didn't show up for hours, he spent his time in a corner of the restaurant on the telephone to her, trying to get her to come back, while his friends enjoyed his victory without him.
The results were announced at 8pm: for almost two hours, journalists and television crews stood outside Le Fouquet's for a glimpse of the new president. They filled time with recaps of the guest list (a slew of top French bosses and capitalists) and potted histories of the place.
Le dîner du Fouquet's became a defining moment: it was when Sarkozy turned his back on the people to party with his rich friends. Days later, he compounded the mistake by accepting a three-day holiday on the yacht of Vincent Bolloré, a media and construction baron, rather than following his first announced impulse, which had been to spend several days meditating in a monastery.
By that time, every columnist and political writer had Sarko's number. Throw in a Rolex, sunglasses and his eternal BlackBerry, and you have the bling president that many people love to hate. A pint-size, Gallic JR Ewing was born. Whatever Carla Bruni, a Turin aristocrat who took one look at the Rolex and gave her new husband a slim Patek Philippe instead, tried to correct, the damage was done.
Today Sarkozy, who has always seen himself as an outsider – too foreign, not tall enough, not successful enough – is regarded as a plutocrat: something the French, with their dual Catholic and Marxist heritage, despise. This is why his casseroles trail behind him still, and why new ones will be found between now and 2017 – if, that is, he manages to escape the current batch.
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