The trouble with Sarkozy: a powerful group want him back, but is he unelectable?
An influential group of backers is calling for the return of Nicolas Sarkozy. But since he left office, the ex-president has been linked to many scandals
John Lichfield has been The Independent's man in Paris since 1997, covering French news. Before that, he was the paper's Foreign Editor and he has also worked in Brussels and Washington. In 1999, he was the UK press Awards Foreign Reporter of the year.
Tuesday 19 February 2013
A solemn attempt will be made in Paris to raise from the dead the fallen champion of the French right. The “friends of Nicolas Sarkozy” – a club of former ministers and officials – will metaphorically hold hands in a circle and make contact with the spirit of the presidency rejected by France almost a year ago.
Ex-President Sarkozy, 58, will return from his official-unofficial retirement and manifest himself as the guest of honour. The subject of the “seance” is the triumphs and tribulations of Mr Sarkozy’s foreign policy between 2007 and 2011. Another session on domestic policy will be held in the spring.
The conference is part of an insistent whispering campaign, which has been increasing in volume in recent weeks. The personalities who have predicted, or exhorted, Mr Sarkozy’s resurrection include the former president’s wife, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy; another former First Lady, Bernadette Chirac; and the former foreign minister and prime minister, Alain Juppé.
In theory, Mr Sarkozy no longer wishes to be involved in politics. He is said to be enjoying his new life as an occasional lawyer and a jet-setting, fee-earning conference guest.
In truth, today’s meeting is part of a careful strategy organised by Mr Sarkozy’s supporters – and almost certainly by Mr Sarkozy himself – to keep alive the possibility of a reconquest of the Elysée Palace in 2017.
The Sarkozy faithful point to the deep unpopularity of President François Hollande after only nine months in office. They point to the prospect of an annus horribilis for the French economy this year. They point to the infighting on the French centre-right and the failure of any obvious successor to Mr Sarkozy to emerge.
They imagine (gleefully) the dire prospect of a continuing rise in popularity of the far-right. By 2017, they suggest – and this was Carla Bruni-Sarkozy’s point in a recent interview – France could face the prospect of a presidential run-off between a detested Socialist incumbent and a xenophobic, anti-European, ultra-nationalist Marine le Pen.
Only one thing can rescue France from such a calamity, they whisper: is the return of one man: Sarko. There are, however, two obstacles to this strategy.
The first is his continuing unpopularity. According to one recent poll, 62 per cent of French people have no wish to see the former president make a return to public life.
The second is not just an obstacle but an obstacle course: the proliferation of financial and political scandals involving Mr Sarkozy since he left power. Some were already bubbling before last spring’s election campaign. Some are potentially crippling; some less so.
Taken together, they paint a picture of a frenetically active politician prepared to trample rules and conventions, before and after he achieved power. Here is a brief guide to the main Sarkoscandals, with an assessment of how damaging they could eventually prove to be.
THE GADDAFI CASH
A Lebanese-born businessman, Ziad Takieddine, claimed last month he had documentary proof that Sarkozy received more than €50m from the late Libyan dictator, Muammar Gaddafi, in 2006-7.
A similar allegation was made by Gaddafi’s son, Saif al-Islam, just before the collapse of the Libyan regime in 2011. The accusation was also made, in considerable detail, by the investigative website, Mediapart, last spring.
Mr Sarkozy rejects the accusations as “grotesque”. He is suing Mediapart for libel. This case may come to court before the end of this year. Mr Takieddinne, who also faces prosecution for organising illegal kickbacks on French arms deals, could be a key witness.
Whatever the rights and wrongs, the Mediapart libel trial may be deeply embarrassing for Mr Sarkozy. Mr Takieddine had close relations for many years with a string of centre-right politicians, including the former president’s childhood friend, Brice Hortefeux, and his close ally and former interior minister, Claude Guéant.
Takieddine also played a significant role in President Sarkozy’s dealings with Gaddafi to free Bulgarian nurses falsely imprisoned in Libya in 2007.
Mischief factor ****
THE BETTENCOURT LINK
Mr Sarkozy’s 2007 campaign treasurer, Eric Woerth, faces prosecution for allegedly taking illegal political payments from France’s wealthiest woman, Liliane Bettencourt. Mr Woerth, and several others, have been formally accused of “abusing” the mental weakness of the octogenarian L’Oréal heiress – who is reportedly worth $24bn – to extract large amounts of money from her.
Mr Sarkozy escaped a similar accusation when he appeared before the investigating magistrate in November. He has instead been declared an “assisted witness” in the affair – half way between a witness and a defendant.
Unless new evidence emerges, Mr Sarkozy cannot now be sent to trial for, in effect, cheating a frail, elderly billionairess. His former campaign treasurer, Mr Woerth, can be.
Mischief factor ***
THE CAMPAIGN FUNDING FIDDLE
Sarkozy has been found guilty of breaching the official limit on his spending in last spring’s presidential campaign – threatening his party with bankruptcy.
The campaign finance watchdog found that Sarkozy, in effect, used taxpayers’ money to campaign before he officially entered the race in February last year. The Sarkozy campaign also stands accused of an accountancy fiddle to transfer half the cost of a giant rally near Paris to the parliamentary elections in June.
Mr Sarkozy has appealed to France’s administrative watchdog, the Conseil Constitutionnel. A decision is due soon. If he loses, his centre-right party, the Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP), which is already deeply in debt, would lose €11m in state subsidies. Party officials fear this could be enough to tip the UMP, into bankruptcy.
Mischief factor ***
THE BRIBERY SCANDAL
Bernard Tapie is a left-wing tycoon who turned politician and then right-wing tycoon – by way of a short prison term. He is best known outside France for his conviction in the Olympique Marseille football bribery scandal in the 1990s.
Mr Sarkozy’s former finance minister, now the IMF chief, Christine Lagarde faces an accusation of “embezzlement” for her alleged role in giving Mr Tapie €285m in state compensation in 2008.
The money reimbursed Tapie for the allegedly sharp practice of the state-owned bank Credit Lyonnais when it sold his controlling stake in the sportwear company Adidas in the mid-1990s.
In 2008 Ms Lagarde cut short endless litigation on the case and appointed a three-man independent tribunal (including Mr Tapie’s former lawyer). An anonymous letter to investigators from the Finance Ministry recently suggested that the real responsibility lay with Mr Sarkozy. Mr Tapie was given a sweetheart deal in return for his high-profile support for Mr Sarkozy in the 2007 presidential election.
Mischief factor ***
THE HOSTAGE PAYOFFS
A former US diplomat alleged this month that the Islamist rebellion in northern Mali was funded partly by a ransom of €17m paid by Nicolas Sarkozy’s government in 2010. According to Vicki J Huddleston, the US ambassador to Mali between 2005 and 2007, later head of the African desk in the State Department, the money was paid for four French hostages. They were not released and are still believed to be held in northern Mali.
The accusation is damaging because Sarkozy – through intermediaries – has criticised his successor François Hollande for being “unprepared” for the Mali crisis. So far, however, the accusation has caused few waves in France.
Mischief factor *
THE QATAR WORLD CUP ARM-TWISTING
Sarkozy held a secret lunch in November 2010 which influenced the decision by football’s governing body to award the 2022 football World Cup to Qatar.
France Football magazine reported that Sarkozy’s guests included the crown prince of Qatar, Tamim bin Haman Al-Thani, the President of UEFA, the European football association, Michel Platini, and a representative of the investment fund which owned the then struggling French football club Paris Saint-Germain (PSG).
France Football said that Mr Platini – a star of the France team of the 1980s – came under pressure at the lunch to switch his vote from the United States to Qatar at a FIFA meeting 10 days later. In exchange, the magazine said, the Qataris indicated that they might buy Paris Saint-Germain and create a new TV sports channel in France.
Mr Platini has denied that he changed his vote for this reason. Mr Sarkozy has not commented.
Mischief factor **
THE AGA KHAN AFFAIR
One of ex-President Sarkozy’s few cases in his old profession as a lawyer has been to act for the Aga Khan, the business tycoon and racehorse owner, in his successful efforts to reverse a €60m divorce settlement. There is nothing wrong in that.
It has, however, recalled the fact that Sarkozy, as president, exempted the billionaire religious leader from all French taxes as a gesture of “international high courtesy”.
Mischief factor *
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