Gaddafi, L’Oréal and ‘trading favours’ – can nothing sink Nicolas Sarkozy?

Nicolas Sarkozy’s enemies, and he has many, had hoped for a perp walk, a Dominique Strauss-Kahn moment: their bête noire in handcuffs between two flics, with no tie or shoelaces, being snapped at the instant of defeat by a hundred press photographers, before being ignominiously arraigned.

That, at least, was (and still is) the plan: to ring the death-knell of a political career, started at 18, which brought this brash son of a Hungarian émigré to the leadership of the party founded by General de Gaulle, then to the Presidency of the French Republic in 2007, at the age of 52.

It may yet happen, but anyone watching Sarkozy’s 20-minute television interview last Tuesday, on the very day he’d been charged with allegedly trading favours and breaching judicial confidentiality, could tell that to the embattled former president, the fight had just begun, and he was relishing it.

Looking sombre but dapper in a beautiful Arnys suit and dark tie, Sarkozy hit back at his judges, one of whom had signed open letters against his candidacy in 2012; and at his adversaries, calling the accusations against him a “political manoeuvre”. It was vintage Sarko: behind the clear, cogent arguments – he always was a master communicator – you could tell he was barely holding back his fury.

Gone was the fashionable three-day stubble Sarko had taken to sporting in recent months, appearing next to his wife Carla Bruni. (Nadine Morano MEP, a colourful former minister and one of Sarko’s last faithful, tweeted “Sarkozy is clean-shaven! That means he’s back.”) The dilettante look had only ever been skin-deep anyway: few French politicians have ever been as focused.

The previous night, Sarkozy had been held and interrogated by police for 15 hours. Now, this former interior minister was careful to exclude the police from any hint of accusation, commending the “professional” way they had behaved, connecting to the constituency that had always trusted him on law and order.

“Sarkozy is far from dead politically: what doesn’t kill him makes him stronger,” says Philippe Moreau Chevrolet, one of France’s shrewdest young political analysts. “He wasn’t trying to convince Left-wing voters; he was speaking to his own voters, over the heads of his competitors on the Right. The spectacular way in which he was taken into custody has served him here: it makes him a martyr, it sets him aside from the rest.”

At a time when Marine Le Pen draws most of her successes from her against-all-comers anti-establishment stance, turning Nicolas Sarkozy into a lone warrior – pierced, Sebastian-like, by arrows from the Left and the Right – is actually playing into his long-term strategy.

Moreau Chevrolet also believes – and has the polls to prove it – that the French aren’t very shocked by the latest accusations. (The “favour” Sarkozy is alleged to have offered judge Gilbert Azibert for allegedly keeping him informed on how his case was going was a possible job in the Monaco judiciary, which never materialised.)

“There are, by contrast, other scandals with a far higher potential to harm Sarkozy; but this has pushed them away from the spotlight. Again, if there is a plot, it is spectacularly ill-conceived,” says Moreau Chevrolet.

Among those is alleged double-billing, to the tune of 17 million euros, by Bygmalion, a PR outfit used by his UMP party, which might have help overcome campaign finance limitations in Sarkozy’s 2012 run. Bygmalion wasn’t directly hired by Sarkozy, but if true, the implications are that he was either ignorant to the point of incompetence, or dishonest and corrupt.

And that’s only one of Sarko’s many casseroles – the French slang term for a misdeed that comes back to haunt you, making the rattling noise of old pans dragged behind a car.

He is also accused receiving covert financing for his victorious 2007 campaign from Muammar Gaddafi, the former Libyan dictator. (“We were at war with Libya for 18 months,” Sarkozy counters, “don’t you think Gaddafi would have used this against me then?”)

Then there’s the Bernard Tapie case, in which Sarkozy is accused of having supported, through his finance minister Christine Lagarde (now head of the IMF) a lucrative arbitration that enabled Tapie, a controversial businessman, to receive 403 million euros in compensation in a conflict with Crédit Lyonnais, the then-nationalised bank.

Another very old casserole dates back 20 years, to when Sarkozy was budget minister under conservative PM Edouard Balladur. Balladur, his defence minister, chief of staff and a couple of advisers are accused of having received Pakistani and Saudi bribes in the course of several large arms contracts. The bribes allegedly helped secretly finance Balladur’s unsuccessful 1995 presidential run.

Sarkozy isn’t charged with anything here, unlike the other protagonists, but he was budget minister as well as Balladur’s closest political ally: judges want to hear him as a witness. (The case is seen as especially dramatic in France because a car bomb near the French Embassy in Karachi killed a dozen French nationals, allegedly because some of the bribes had not been paid.)

Finally, there’s the Bettencourt case. L’Oréal heiress Liliane Bettencourt was alleged to have given a brown paper envelope filled with cash to Sarkozy before his first presidential run. Judges seized Sarkozy’s private papers and appointment diaries, but failed to find any evidence; he has been formally cleared of all charges.

Any one of these casseroles could be the end of a lesser politician, and the sheer accumulation may yet defeat Sarkozy. It certainly helps polarise attitudes against him even more: few French politicians have been so unloved. Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, François Mitterrand and François Hollande all had or have enemies and bitter adversaries.

But with Sarko, it’s personal. He irritates. He grates. Otherwise calm, seemingly rational people tell you, apropos of nothing, that they’d like to push a stake through his heart. Supposed friends of the common people on the Left rant about his “vulgarity”. Judge Claire Thépaut, one of his two investigating magistrates – part police investigator, part DPP with very wide powers – called him a destroyer of justice and democracy in an open letter she signed with other members of her union, the Left-wing Syndicat de La Magistrature.

Only Sarkozy has the power to turn calm, elderly academics such as Monique and Michel Pinçon-Charlot – sociologists who study the arcane mores of the French upper-middle class – into Marxist firebrands fulminating at the former president’s habits, friends, manners, clothes, likes and dislikes, even his musical tastes (middle-of-the-road French pop of the Johnny Hallyday vintage).

It might not have come to that. When a 28-year-old Sarkozy first impinged on the French national consciousness, it was as Mayor of Neuilly, an affluent Paris suburb during a hostage situation in an ordinary municipal primary school. Sarkozy stepped into the middle of the standoff, negotiating unarmed with the gunman, offering to come in if the children were released, which they were. People – and Jacques Chirac, the then Gaullist leader – took note.

The bling issue still hadn’t surfaced a decade later, when Sarkozy served as one of France’s most successful interior ministers. The police loved him, which was to be expected; so, to everyone’s surprise, did the préfets, the supercilious breed of mandarins in charge of governing the French départements and regions. Préfets are educated at ENA, the inbred elite upper civil service school: Sarko, an undistinguished lawyer, hadn’t even managed to complete its feeder school.

The préfets usually have a policed, cautious manner: Sarkozy was brash and impatient with the formalities and rigid hierarchical system ruling most French organisations. Yet he got things done, and more than one préfet described him to me at the time – in a surprised voice – as having a clear vision of how the country should be run.

For all those years, Sarkozy’s most faithful and efficient deputy was his second wife Cecilia, a tall, striking brunette who handled his communications and most of his staff management with an iron hand. Cecilia liked, if not bling, then certainly luxury. One of her best friends was the managing director of Prada in France. Another worked at Dior. Cecilia’s allure was very Parisienne: rail-thin, good haircut, bulging calfskin Filofax, black Mini Cooper with tinted windows driven at top speed and parked anywhere, two mobiles almost permanently attached to each ear. Cecilia had an office in every ministry her husband headed, which, surprisingly, went uncriticised – in good part because she wasn’t paid and because she was a very hard worker.

It was Cecilia who pushed Sarkozy to his first, probably fatal, bling mistake. Rather than gather his friends and supporters at their home in Neuilly on the evening he won the presidential election, she chose to give a dinner for the most prominent of them at Le Fouquet’s, a Champs-Elysées restaurant which had been a film-crowd watering hole but had been recently acquired by a luxury hotel and casino chain.

One of the reasons was that she could no longer stand the political crowd and didn’t want to have them at her home – she was, in fact, in the process of leaving Sarkozy. The new president was shattered by the prospect of her leaving: he paid scant attention to the location or the guest list, his usual political acumen off; and when she didn’t show up for hours (she did not even vote in the second round of the election), he spent all of his time in a corner of the restaurant on the telephone to her, trying to get her to come back, while his friends enjoyed his victory without him.

The results were announced at 8pm: for almost two hours, journalists and television crews stood outside Le Fouquet’s for a glimpse of the new president. They filled time with recaps of the guest list (a slew of top French bosses and capitalists; a smattering of artists and singers) and potted histories of the place. Le dîner du Fouquet’s became a defining moment: when Sarkozy turned his back on the French people to party with his rich friends.

Days later, he compounded this first mistake by accepting a three-day holiday on the yacht of Vincent Bolloré, a media and construction baron, rather than following his first announced impulse, which had been, after the victory, to spend a few days meditating in a monastery. Cecilia preferred the Med cruise, and the Med cruise she got. By that time, every columnist and political writer had Sarko’s number. Throw in a Rolex watch, a pair of aviator sunglasses and his eternal BlackBerry: the bling president you love to hate, a pint-size, Gallic JR Ewing, was born.

Whatever Carla Bruni – a Turin aristocrat who took one look at the gold Rolex watch and gave her new husband a slim Patek Philippe instead – later tried to correct, the damage was done. Today Sarkozy, who has always seen himself as an outsider – too foreign, too striving, not tall enough, not successful enough – is regarded as a plutocrat: something the French, with a dual Catholic and Marxist heritage, despise.

This is why all his casseroles trail behind him still, and why new ones will be found between now and 2017 – if he manages to escape the current batch.

Anne-Elisabeth Moutet is a Paris-based journalist and political commentator.

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