Nicolas Sarkozy’s election excess pushes party to the brink of bankruptcy

UMP – already heavily in debt – ordered to pay back €11m state subsidy after campaign overspend

Paris

Nicolas Sarkozy’s political party is facing bankruptcy after the country’s constitutional watchdog ruled that the former president exceeded legal spending limits during his 2012 presidential campaign. The ruling means the Union pour un Mouvement Populaire now has to repay the €11m in state subsidies it was given towards its election costs, putting it at risk of going under.

In an unprecedented ruling with far-reaching implications for Mr Sarkozy’s hopes of a political comeback, France’s Constitutional Council upheld a December decision by the country’s election finance committee, which ruled that the UMP had breached the agreed limit for campaign financing.

The Council confirmed that the finance committee had been “correct to reject the campaign accounting” of Mr Sarkozy following his unsuccesful campaign against François Hollande last year, which it said had exceeded the legal cap of €22.5m by €466,118.

The ruling means that the centre-right UMP will now have to repay the entire subsidy it received from the state. Under French law large party donations are banned and election spending is capped.

Speaking after an hour-long crisis meeting with Mr Sarkozy, UMP leader Jean-Francois Cope issued an urgent “national appeal” for funds which he said would be officially launched on Monday.

The UMP, which was already in considerable debt, is effectively bankrupt as a result of the verdict. It has lost around €14m in donations since its poor performance in last year’s presidential and parliamentary elections, and owes €55m euros to the banks. It also stretched itself further by moving into a glittering new headquarters in December.

“The voice of the UMP will not be extinguished,” Mr Copé insisted after the ruling. He and Mr Sarkozy had agreed on the need to “join forces” against “monopolies by the left and extremist parties” he added.

Mr Sarkozy condemned the ruling in a statement, saying that it would have “consequences for the opposition and for democracy.” He stepped down from the Constitutional Council with immediate effect in order to recover his “freedom of speech”, he said. All former presidents have the right to sit on the supreme arbiter of matters of state, but Mr Sarkozy did not take part in the deliberations concerning his campaign financing.

The UMP has also been troubled by divisions among its most prominent members after a botched leadership vote at the end of last year.

Some critics of Mr Sarkozy suggested he should foot the €10m bill. But Mr Sarkozy’s former prime minister, Francois Fillon, who is also Mr Copé’s main rival, said that the party should “take on the financial consequences” because the UMP had represented Mr Sarkozy in its “collective” enterprise to defeat the president’s challengers.

Mr Sarkozy was criticised by the election financing authorities on two main counts. He campaigned for re-election, notably at a rally in Toulon in 2011, before officially throwing his hat into the ring in February. His campaign has also been accused of underestimating the cost of a huge rally at Villepinte near Paris and transferring half of its accounting costs to the parliamentary elections in June last year.

The ruling is the latest strike against Mr Sarkozy who faces other allegations of receiving illegal funding for his first presidential campaign in 2007. He has been placed under investigation for allegedly abusing the fragility of the L’Oreal heiress, Liliane Bettencourt. Mr Sarkozy has denied any wrongdoing.

Although prosecutors have asked for the charge to be dropped against him, a judge in Bordeaux ignored a prosecution request and maintained a corruption charge against one of Mr Sarkozy’s aides, former budget minister Eric Woerth in connection with the Bettencourt case.

With his party in chaos, Mr Sarkozy has been riding high in the opinion polls, reinforcing speculation that he intends to return to frontline politics to contest the 2017 presidential elections. Since leaving office, he has been globe-trotting on the lucrative international lecture circuit.

Mr Sarkozy is likely to take the ruling personally. One of his close aides, Brice Hortefeux, told Le Monde: “this is a totally unjust decision, which shows once again a willingness to asphyxiate an inconvenient person.”

Outrage at Carla’s free €11,000 trip

A trade union for crisis-hit Air France has voiced outrage after it emerged that it treated Carla Bruni-Sarkozy to a first-class plane ticket to New York, and even covered €500 in airport charges for her.

France’s former first lady, who is married to ex-President Nicolas Sarkozy and is a millionaire in her own right thanks to her folk-singing career, flew to New York from Paris on 23 June on a return ticket worth €11,000. When members of trade union Sud-Aérien, discovered that the airline had paid for the ticket, they went public to denounce the practice of offering free flights to ‘VIPs’ at a time when France’s partly state-owned national airline is shedding jobs as part of a three-year economy drive to save €2bn.

The union noted that the head of Air France-KLM, Alexandre De Juniac, may be a former aide to the ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy, but he is still supposed to be “providing a service.”

Union spokesman Léon Crémieux said that the protest had nothing to do with Ms Bruni-Sarkozy personally. “It’s just that if there are rules they should be for everybody, and to use the company for one’s friends, or friends of friends, is dishonest.”

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