Soap opera scandal casts shadow
Accusations of shady deals have destroyed a family and now threaten a president, writes Aoife Drew
UNTIL recently, one was more likely to spot Princess Helene of Yugoslavia in the social pages of European glossy magazines, modelling or participating in charity fundraisers, than in the headlines of Le Figaro or Le Monde.
As the great-granddaughter of the last king of Italy, she is a well-established member of the Gotha, the European aristocratic class. Yet now she has become intertwined in the so-called Karachi affair, a messy scandal troubling President Nicolas Sarkozy, causing serious worries for the Elysee Palace and, indeed, her own family.
Princess Helene, 48, has formally accused her estranged husband, Thierry Gaubert, of making frequent trips abroad in the Nineties to collect 'bags of cash' for illegal political funds.
Mr Gaubert, a close aide of Sarkozy's both professionally and personally (Sarkozy, as mayor of Neuilly, married the couple in a civil ceremony in 1988), was arrested last week and investigated for allegedly handling kickbacks on multibillion-dollar arms contracts. He has denied any involvement, accused his ex-wife of lying, and now the couple's eldest daughter has spoken to the French press, saying their mother is suffering from poor mental health.
Sarkozy -- accused by his arch-enemy, ex-prime minister Dominique de Villepin -- denies any involvement in the sprawling Karachi affair, which is an investigation into a 2002 bombing in Pakistan that killed 15 people including 11 French engineers.
The bombing is alleged to have been a reprisal for ex-president Jacques Chirac's decision to stop paying commissions to Pakistan on the sales of submarines. French judges suspect a number of French politicians received kickbacks from the sales, and used this money to help finance Edouard Balladur's 1995 presidential campaign. Sarkozy was budget minister back then and close to Mr Balladur, while Mr Gaubert was the deputy head of Sarkozy's private office.
Sarkozy cannot be prosecuted while in office, so will escape legal proceedings, but his allies are going through the proverbial 'merde'.
Mr Gaubert, along with senior luxury goods executive Nicolas Bazire ( Sarkozy's best man at his wedding to Carla Bruni) who was campaign manager for Mr Balladur in 1995, deny any wrongdoing, as does another man, Ziad Takieddine, alleged to have been a key figure in deals with Pakistan.
However, Helene of Yugoslavia says different, and claims that the men smuggled suitcases of cash across borders. She told investigators that Mr Gaubert regularly went to Geneva to get money and always returned via London in order to avoid checks at the Franco-Swiss border. She confirmed this to a variety of media outlets, including Europe 1 radio and Le Monde.
Where did the money come from? This remains a mystery -- the princess is quoted in the Canard Enchaine newspaper as saying: "I did not ask him questions on this theme [money]. I come from a background where this is not done." Yet the princess seems to have been implicated herself, as her name was used on accounts allegedly used to deposit the money.
In this tangled mess of accusations of corruption and shady deals, who is telling the truth? Not surprisingly, the Elysee Palace has rejected as defamation any suggestion that Sarkozy was linked to illegal campaign financing. But it seems that Princess Helene is facing opposition even from inside her own family.
Mr Gaubert has reportedly threatened to have his estranged wife thrown into an asylum. Her eldest daughter, Milena Gaubert, 23, accuses her mother of lying. On French radio, she said, "It's my duty to talk. My mother is depressed. She has made several suicide attempts. She has said to me, 'I don't care about the truth, I just want to annoy your father.'" She maintains that her mother is motivated by revenge and invented everything she said when interrogated last week.
In response, Princess Helene, via her lawyer, protested that she is in perfect health and does not intend to fight her battles via the media. But it looks like this affair has gone too far -- her family is torn apart. According to Le Monde, her youngest daughter Nastasia Gaubert, 20, was recorded by the police saying to her boyfriend on the telephone: "My father said to my mother, if you squeal, the whole family is destroyed. We're all destroyed. He said that really, we are in the shit."
The princess has certainly fallen from grace in the eyes of Sarkozy's supporters. In addition to destroying the Gaubert family, this soap opera-like affair is casting a shadow over Sarkozy's presidential ambitions for 2012. Though this is not the first time Sarkozy has been accused of corruption: this case echoes the Bettencourt scandal, a family feud in which Sarkozy was forced to deny that he had received cash gifts from L'Oreal doyenne Liliane Bettencourt.
While those once close to him fall like dominos, it remains to be seen whether Sarkozy will, once again, escape unscathed.