One of the first discoveries you make if you spend any time in France is that the term les affaires does not mean what you thought it did. Admittedly, the affaire you first thought of is often tied up in les affaires, but not always, and only ever as a constituent part. Les affaires are a very French phenomenon. They heat up slowly, but rarely reach a sustained boil – or if they do, it is only to subside in the same fitful way as they began.
They are by definition convoluted; they reach into usually hidden recesses of French society. And they have a vast and ever-changing cast of characters. At least one will be devastatingly good-looking; at least one will possess legendary wealth, and another will be linked to a French luxury brand – and occasionally they will be one and the same. But always, some way along the line, they will brush the edge of government to threaten the precarious edifice of French power.
This is roughly where Nicolas Sarkozy finds himself now in relation to what has become known as the Bettencourt affaire. There is much delightful detail to luxuriate in, including a L'Oréal heiress, a butler with a tape-recorder, and a ravishing female financial adviser married to a government minister. But to cut a long Gallic story short, it has reached the point where the President is accused of accepting money from the heiress in the French equivalent of plain brown envelopes, and a judicial inquiry has been launched.
Which brings us to another feature of les affaires. They are rarely about people taking, or even paying, money on their own account. Money that changes hands is almost always channelled towards a political party – and not because French parties are particularly greedy, but because, as in many other countries, legal ways of fund-raising range from inadequate to non-existent.
In one way, the Bettencourt affair, at least as far as it impinges on Sarkozy, belongs in this wider European tradition of party-funding scandals. The most prominent victim to date is probably the former German chancellor, Helmut Kohl. Italian politicians are implicated far more often, but escape more often, too. The late Bettino Craxi was forced from office as Prime Minister, but took himself off into Tunisian exile and avoided prison.
In its colourful cast and rolling narrative, however, the Bettencourt saga is inimitably French. In its prolixity it already threatens to trump the long-running, and almost unfathomable, 1980s scandal in the départment of Hauts-de-Seine, which last year brought the conviction of the former interior minister, Charles Pasqua – but only after a sub-plot involving wiretapping (les ecoutes), was expensively opened and closed.
It is also in danger of rivalling the so-called Elf affair, which starred Roland Dumas, a former foreign minister and head of France's Constitutional Court, and his mistress, Christine Deviers-Joncour, the self-styled "whore of the Republic". Fabulous sums of money were diverted from the oil giant, Elf Aquitaine, in exchange for political favours. Glamorous associates of the by-then deceased President Mitterrand were implicated, as were sundry African potentates. And the fact that any investigation worth the name began at all was largely down to the indefatigable Norwegian-born judge, Eva Joly. A real French judge, it was always said, would have understood that the case was a career-breaker and given it the widest of berths.
Nicolas Sarkozy may be lucky. It is not impossible that the Bettencourt case, like les affaires of past decades, will meander off in other directions and leave him behind. At the moment, though, it looks dangerous. And this is not only because the French media have the bit between their teeth and the government is generally unpopular, but because – regardless of the truth – Sarkozy's involvement is so entirely credible.
From his earliest days as a politician to the election victory that took him to the Elysée, Sarkozy has never quite managed to shake off the air of the ingénue, the upstart and outsider. He might be the son of a Hungarian aristocrat, but that did not give him the entrée he craved into the top tier of French society. Unlike many of today's French elite – including his chief political rival, Dominique de Villepin – he is not a product of the grandes ecoles, he has a law degree from the Sorbonne. He does not write poetry. He is new blood not old, and in so far as he has money, it is new money not old. Hobnobbing with celebrities always seemed a substitute for the real thing. A client relationship with the Bettencourt household and its fortune is all too plausible. So is the risk that Sarkozy could be hung out to dry by a rarefied establishment that regards him as "not one of us".
So long as he is President, Sarkozy enjoys immunity from prosecution. But he faces re-election in less than two years and aspiring contenders are already jockeying for position. And while Sarkozy and his government are unpopular for all sorts of political considerations, the reason this scandal presents such a threat is that it plays to the President's personal flaws.
And the same can be said of almost every fatal political scandal that comes along anywhere. In the United States, the Monica Lewinsky affair refused to go away not just because the allegations were so damaging in themselves, but because they were so eminently believable, given the shady areas of Bill Clinton's past. Go back further, and Richard Nixon's reputation as "Tricky Dicky" was already seared into the public consciousness because of his apparent shiftiness before the cameras in that very first televised presidential debate. Closer to home, take Tony Blair. To go to war in Iraq was an epic misjudgement. But it was the way in which justification for the war was "spun", both before and after, that did for Blair's reputation and cut his third term short.
Nicolas Sarkozy may survive, win a second term and even thrive. Outsiders have a knack of doing that, too. But if, directly or indirectly, the Bettencourt affair brings him down, it will be because it was his scandal – a scandal that exposed his fatal flaw.
For further reading
'Justice Under Siege', by Eva Joly (Arcadia, 2006)Reuse content