Nicolas Sarkozy's campaign staff concealed €17m of illegal overspending with 'fake bills'

Former President tries to turn scandal to his advantage, but opponents say it is inconceivable he was not aware

paris

Senior aides to former President Nicolas Sarkozy organised a system of double book-keeping to conceal €17m (£13.6m) of illegal overspending on his failed 2012 re-election campaign, it has been alleged.

Documents seized by fraud squad investigators and comments by a former campaign official placed two of the former President’s closest associates at the heart of the “fake bills” scandal which threatens to tear apart France’s main opposition party.

There is no evidence that Mr Sarkozy was aware that gross overspending by his campaign team was allegedly being covered up by fake bills for non-existent events financed by his centre-right party, the Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP). 

Nonetheless, the scandal threatens to derail the former President’s hopes of ending his self-imposed retirement from politics and coming back as party leader and prospective presidential candidate this autumn.

Anti-Sarkozy politicians within UMP maintain that it is implausible he did not know that his 2012 campaign was  overspending the legal limit by such a wide margin. Either way, they suggest, he should carry the can politically for his campaign’s attempts to evade the law. 

Any presidential candidate who reaches the two-candidate second round is allowed to spend a maximum of €22.5m on the whole of his or her campaign.

According to documents leaked this week to the news website Mediapart, the Sarkozy campaign spent at least €39.5m and hid the surplus by generating fake bills for fictitious party conferences and seminars.

Mr Sarkozy’s supporters challenge this version of events. Since the scandal first broke three weeks ago, they have suggested that the money might simply have been embezzled by unnamed UMP officials.

Mr Sarkozy has even tried to use the affair to accelerate his plans for a political comeback. Although he has said nothing publicly himself, his supporters have let it be known that only Mr Sarkozy is now capable of cleansing and uniting the shaken UMP and mounting a successful challenge for the presidency in 2017.

The Sarkozy line of attack – described by one UMP politician as a “breathtakingly arrogant piece of political ju-jitsu” – has been destabilised by two events in the past two days.

Leaks to the press suggest that documents seized by fraud squad officers show that the decision to keep two sets of books was approved by two senior officials close to Mr Sarkozy. This version of events was confirmed by Mr Sarkozy’s former deputy campaign manager, Jérôme Lavrilleux, under questioning by police on Tuesday and in an interview on Thursday with the newspaper Libération.

Mr Lavrilleux, who first revealed the scandal in a tearful television interview three weeks ago, pointed the finger at Guillaume Lambert, director of the Sarkozy 2012 campaign, and Eric Cesari, director general of the UMP (and known within the party as the “eye” of Mr Sarkozy). He said that both men were present at a meeting which decided to hide the illegal campaign spending “by putting in place a system of double book-keeping”.

Both men have denied all knowledge of any attempt to conceal the over-spending in this way.

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