On July 2, France awoke to images of an unshaven and bleary-eyed Nicolas Sarkozy seated in the back of a police car after 15 hours of interrogation by the judicial police. Several officers accompanied the former president to a midnight confrontation with two examining magistrates, who informed him that he was then under formal investigation for “active corruption” and “influence trafficking.”
Three years earlier, all France was aghast at the indignity of the New York City “perp walk” inflicted on the International Monetary Fund chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn following his arrest on rape charges. Mr. Sarkozy’s “perp ride” found the French more divided: When asked in the wake of the allegations whether they would like to see a Sarkozy presidential candidacy in 2017, only 33 percent responded “yes.”
Among sympathizers of Mr. Sarkozy’s party, the Union for a Popular Movement (U.M.P.), support remains strong, however: A full 78 percent want the former president to run again. This remarkable level of confidence in a man who has been linked in press reports to at least half a dozen scandals no doubt figured heavily in his decision to mount an audacious counterattack. Less than 24 hours after his appearance before the magistrates, he was on television again, denouncing what he described as a politically motivated effort to “humiliate” him.
No one can deny Mr. Sarkozy’s talent as a performer. Although only 23 percent of the French judge the ex-president to be “honest,” 62 percent find him “charismatic.” His rage against his pursuers was all the more effective for being exquisitely modulated and disciplined.
The performance was also calculated to deflect attention from the charges against him by protesting how they came about. Investigators had obtained a warrant to tap telephone conversations between the former president and his lawyer, Thierry Herzog, in connection with allegations of illegal contributions to Mr. Sarkozy’s 2007 presidential campaign by the former Libyan dictator Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi. In a plot twist worthy of “The Wire,” it turned out that though Mr. Sarkozy and Mr. Herzog were indeed communicating on a “burner” telephone registered to a fictitious “Paul Bismuth,” their conversations had nothing to do with illicit Libyan money. The two men reportedly discussed the possibility of offering a plum pre-retirement post in Monaco to an appellate court official in exchange for access to confidential court documents relating to yet another investigation in which Mr. Sarkozy’s name had surfaced.
Mr. Sarkozy and his defenders argue that the wiretap, though duly authorized, constituted an outrageous invasion of his privacy. More seriously from a legal point of view, Mr. Sarkozy insists, the tap involved lawyer-client communications, and the warrant did not pertain to the offenses said to have been revealed by the eavesdropping. Yet, even if Mr. Sarkozy wins the legal battle, he may lose the political one. The wrangling in the courts is likely to drag on for years, but the U.M.P. is due to select a new leader in November.
A few weeks ago, the party was taken over by a triumvirate of former prime ministers after it was revealed that the public relations firm Bygmalion, which stage-managed Mr. Sarkozy’s 2012 presidential campaign, had kept double books and filed false invoices in order to evade campaign spending limits. These “irregularities” have been acknowledged by both Bygmalion’s lawyer and the chief of staff to the former party leader Jean-François Copé, Jérôme Lavrilleux, who also served as an assistant director of Mr. Sarkozy’s campaign. Yet Mr. Sarkozy maintained that any finagling with the books was strictly party business and had nothing to do with him or his campaign.
Nevertheless, the new corruption investigation may help rather than hinder Mr. Sarkozy’s comeback effort. Pugnacity has always been his strong suit, and the attack by the judges has allowed him to come out swinging.
The French right has long had it in for the investigating magistrates (“juges d’instruction”), whose independence from the political hierarchy has enabled them to pursue corruption with a relatively free hand. As president, Mr. Sarkozy attempted to abolish the “petits juges,” or as he called them, “petits pois” (peas, fit to be squashed). He accused one of the magistrates in his case, Claire Thépaut, of bias for supposedly writing an op-ed against him in 2012. In fact, the author was the head of the magistrates’ union of which Ms. Thépaut is a member.
Mr. Sarkozy’s attack on the judiciary elicited a stinging rebuke from the president of the Constitutional Council, Jean-Louis Debré: “You can contest the charges against you, but you cannot contest the basis of justice, because then you are contesting the Republic itself.” Potential U.M.P. presidential challengers like Alain Juppé, a former prime minister, and Bruno Le Maire, a former agriculture minister, urged respect for the “serenity of the judicial process.” Mr. Sarkozy does not see “serenity” as a winning strategy, banking instead on strong rank-and-file support if he portrays himself as the victim of a left-wing judicial vendetta.
Meanwhile, Marine Le Pen, the leader of the National Front, is relishing the spectacle. It has long been an article of faith on the extreme right that mainstream politicians are “tous pourris,” all rotten. The French will tolerate a degree of Machiavellian cunning as part of the political game, but cunning should be redeemed by political intelligence. And voters lately are fed up with the seeming ineptness of both François Hollande’s Socialist Party, or P.S., and the post-Sarkozy U.M.P., making it easy for Ms. Le Pen to ridicule the two at once as “the U.M.P.S.” — as though there were no difference between them.
Now Mr. Sarkozy, a former head of state, has chosen to defend himself against a corruption charge by asserting that the entire state, including the government, the judiciary and the police, is indeed rotten, implicitly endorsing the ideology of Ms. Le Pen. The danger of such a defense should be obvious.
Arthur Goldhammer is a writer and translator, and an affiliate of the Center for European Studies at Harvard University.