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Originally published Saturday, March 15, 2014 at 3:53 PM

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France’s Sarkozy is out of office, but still front and center

A bizarre sequence of government missteps transforms scandals surrounding former French President Nicolas Sarkozy into a crisis for President François Hollande’s administration.


The New York Times

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PARIS — The scandal, intrigue and occasional vaudeville of Nicolas Sarkozy’s five years in the presidency made for great headlines, and French journalists once fretted that politics under his successor, François Hollande, who pledged to be a “normal” president, might prove unbearably dull.

But that fear overlooked the court cases, judicial investigations and general whiff of malfeasance that would trail Sarkozy and his lieutenants out of the corridors of power and, it appears, entangle even Hollande.

The current president’s tumultuous love life has made for a bit of public drama in recent months, with reports that he had a mistress and slipped off to trysts via motor scooter. But the French no longer seem much to care, if they ever did, and holdover scandals from the Sarkozy era are making for the best reading. Through a bizarre sequence of government missteps, by the weekend they had become as much a crisis for Hollande as for Sarkozy.

The almost universal expectation that Sarkozy will make a bid for the presidency in 2017 has only heightened the drama.

Chief among the affairs is the accusation, being investigated by two special magistrates, that Sarkozy’s 2007 presidential campaign received up to $70 million in illegal funds from Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi.

This month, the newspaper Le Monde revealed that investigators had tapped the phones of Sarkozy, two of his former ministers and his lawyer, Thierry Herzog, beginning last year. The practice is not illegal, though lawyers have called the surveillance of Herzog’s phone a possible violation of attorney-client privilege. Sarkozy appears to be the first former French president to have his private conversations monitored by investigators.

He has denied the claims of Libyan financing, made by former loyalists to Gadhafi and one of his sons, and says they are meant to damage him in revenge for the international military intervention he helped orchestrate in Libya in 2011 that led to Gadhafi’s ouster and death.

Unrelated suspicions

It is unclear if the phone-tapping did anything to corroborate the claims, but it has led to unrelated suspicions involving Sarkozy and a well-placed magistrate, Gilbert Azibert, who is believed to have served as his informer in the courts.

In their recorded conversations, Le Monde reported, Sarkozy and Herzog discussed an investigation into whether Sarkozy’s 2007 campaign received illegal funding from Liliane Bettencourt, the 91-year-old L’Oréal heiress who is France’s richest woman. Some of the evidence in that case is being used in yet another case implicating Sarkozy, involving a $550 million state payout in 2008 to Bernard Tapie, a colorful businessman with a checkered past.

Sarkozy had been kept quietly informed about a court’s plans for the evidence by Azibert, according to Le Monde and government documents. Azibert, who is nearing retirement, is said to have intimated he might like some assistance in obtaining a post in the seaside principality of Monaco, and Sarkozy said he would help, in exchange for information.

An investigation into breach of judicial secrecy and influence-peddling has been opened, and the homes and offices of Azibert and Sarkozy’s lawyer have been searched. Azibert was recently hospitalized, and there is speculation he might have attempted suicide.

Government apprised

Inauspicious as this may seem for Sarkozy and the right, it is the center-left government of Hollande that is on the defensive. After first insisting they had learned of the phone-tapping only through the news media, government ministers — including the justice minister, Christiane Taubira — admitted they were informed as early as last month.

The French judiciary is not entirely independent of the executive branch, and it is not uncommon for the minister of justice to be apprised of judicial investigations, especially if celebrities or public officials are involved. But the government, and Taubira in particular, were not forthcoming about their knowledge of the case. Their political opponents, who presumably should be on the defensive, have pounced.

Jean-François Copé, leader of the Union for a Popular Movement, Sarkozy’s party, has called for Taubira’s resignation.

Taubira has refused and has insisted she did not lie. At a news conference last week, she said she had been told about the tapping last month but had been given no information about what it revealed. But the internal papers she strangely chose to flash before reporters to prove her point were captured in news photographs, and closer observation of the documents suggests Taubira was far better informed than she claimed.

Copé and his party renewed their attacks. But those sallies have been widely viewed as a diversionary tactic, considering that Copé is embroiled in a scandal of his own. According to the newsmagazine Le Point, Copé gave a sweetheart contract to a company run by two friends to organize rallies during Sarkozy’s unsuccessful 2012 campaign. The party spent $11 million with the firm, more than one-quarter of its entire declared campaign spending, paying double the going rate for several of the services provided, Le Point reported last month.

Because French political parties depend heavily on public funding, much of that money would have come from taxpayers.

Copé declared himself a victim of hateful press and suggested the report was concocted to hurt his party before municipal elections this month. He did not, however, deny it. A judicial investigation into the party’s campaign spending was opened this month.

Secret recordings

In another embarrassment for Sarkozy and the right, secret recordings made by a close aide to Sarkozy during his presidency appeared recently on a news website, Atlantico, and in transcribed form in an investigative newspaper, Le Canard Enchaîné.

The recordings do not seem to reveal anything illegal, but Sarkozy and his wife, singer and model Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, can be heard discussing money — she paid the bills during his presidency, it seems — and Sarkozy’s advisers can be heard crudely insulting government ministers and Bruni-Sarkozy.

It is unclear how the recordings were leaked. The aide who recorded the conversations, Patrick Buisson, a political operative with deep ties to the far right, initially said he had made the recordings for his own records. His lawyer later claimed the recorder had mysteriously switched on, repeatedly, unbeknown to Buisson.

Claiming a breach of his privacy rights, Sarkozy on Friday obtained an injunction requiring that the recordings be removed from the website and that Buisson pay him $14,000 in damages.

“Many French doubt, already, political officials’ sense of the public interest,” Le Monde wrote in a front-page editorial last week castigating the country’s political class. “These new developments can only reinforce their mistrust and disgust. In one manner or another, majority and opposition will pay the price.”



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