Paris Blues: France is fed up with its dull, even venal leaders
There was something both sinister and comical Nicolas sarkozyof the performance on the witness stand last week. The former French president, dressed in his usual black suit and tie, his face covered with a black mask, cut a dark, almost threatening silhouette, facing the panel of three judges. During three hours of questioning, his initially sober voice grew loud and shrill. Raising himself on the soles of his feet, he waved his hands in the air, waved his finger on the bench and spread his arms, like a conductor conducting an unfinished symphony. Unfinished because the final – the verdict – is yet to come. But there was no doubt that Sarkozy was facing the music.
He was not alone. In addition to the 66-year-old ex-president, 13 defendants are on trial for campaign spending violations resulting from Sarkozy’s failure to run for re-election in 2012. The case involves two related allegations: breaking the ceiling legal campaign expenses as well as concocting a bogus billing system to cover up the actual expenses. Sarkozy himself is only accused of illegal campaign financing, punishable by up to one year in prison if convicted. (The ex-president denies the charges, like most other defendants. Some face more serious charges and longer prison terms.)
The mechanism behind this alleged financial sleight of hand was actually quite simple, if not simplistic. Once campaign officials were warned they were approaching allowable limits, they allegedly convinced the company that produced Sarkozy’s rock star rallies to redirect their campaign bills from the president to his center-political party. law. The party, then known as UMP and now called Les Républicains, was not subject to any spending restrictions. It seemed like a great idea, until several French media got wind of the alleged scheme and denounced it in 2014. Forensic investigators found that the Sarkozy campaign had in fact spent nearly double the legal limit, or 26, $ 9 million. The big question was who designed and commissioned this daring subterfuge?
Under the incessant questioning of the presiding judge Caroline Viguier, Sarkozy insisted on the fact that he had seen nothing, known nothing, done nothing in connection with the false invoices. Yet, in the end, he couldn’t escape the fact that as a candidate he was the leader of his own campaign and ultimately responsible for his transgressions. Sarkozy indignantly argued to the contrary: “Do I have a political responsibility? Yes! Do I have any criminal liability? No! Because I had no fraudulent intent. Prosecutors have not moved. In concluding their complaint against him, they asked for the maximum sentence of one year in prison, six months suspended and six months in prison. The judges will deliver their verdict in the fall.
Sarkozy is no stranger to the dock. In March, he was convicted, along with his lawyer and a former judge, in a corruption scheme: Sarkozy offered to help the magistrate land a prestigious post in Monaco in exchange for judicial information protected from a separate investigation involving the former president. If the counterpart was never actually achieved, the three men were nevertheless found guilty of criminal conspiracy and sentenced to identical sentences: three years imprisonment including two years suspended, that is to say at least one year of detention or, more likely, arrest. (The case is on appeal.) This gave Sarkozy the dubious distinction of being only the second former French president, after Jacques Chirac, to receive a prison sentence. And Sarkozy’s troubles are not over: Sarkozy is currently under investigation for allegedly receiving illegal political contributions from former Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi. Sarkozy denies the allegations. Whether or not Sarkozy is brought to justice in this affair, his hopes of a possible political return have been dashed.
Sarkozy and his supporters say he has been unfairly targeted by left-wing magistrates. Still, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that his tribulations are rooted in his own ethical mistakes. “We are looking at a president who has accumulated a level of judicial accusations unprecedented in the history of France,” said Fabrice Arfi, a journalist from the Mediapart investigative site, who helped expose the alleged campaign scandal. “He is reminiscent of Trump, Berlusconi or Netanyahu. He’s the same type of character, a populist who attacks justice instead of respecting the institutions he’s supposed to protect.
Sarkozy is not the only French political leader to find himself in the crosshairs of the prosecution. His former Prime Minister, Francois Fillon, was convicted last year of embezzling public funds by paying his wife more than a million euros over 10 years for a fictitious job as a parliamentary assistant. Fillon received a heavy sentence of five years in prison with three years suspended; his wife received a three-year suspended prison sentence. The case is on appeal, but the real damage has been done: until the scandal broke in the press in 2017, Fillon seemed on the way to winning the presidency.
The derailment of Fillon’s candidacy seriously weakened his center-right party, Les Républicains, at a time when the traditional left was also imploding at the end of the socialist president Francois Hollandedull term. Into the Void – virtually dancing over the ruins – a fresh-faced ex-investment banker named Emmanuel Macron, who managed to waltz at the Élysée at the age of 39, when he had never stood for an elective mandate.
Macron burst onto the scene promising a new kind of politics, neither on the left nor on the right, and touting sweeping reforms aimed at modernizing the country. But he quickly ran into problems. His ambitious plan to restructure France’s creaky pension system met with such opposition that he was forced to put it aside. His attempt to impose an eco-tax on gas sparked a national revolt of so-called yellow vests that raged for more than a year and could flare up again in the current climate of discontent. Although the COVID-19 situation is now starting to improve in France, Macron’s initial handling of the crisis was widely viewed as dire. So, in the eyes of many of his fellow citizens, this bright and energetic young president was as much a disappointment as the old political dinosaurs he sought to replace.