France’s rambunctious, razor-tongued former President Nicolas Sarkozy has never hidden his disdain of the nation’s judiciary. But despite his long-running battle with French judges, even Sarkozy could never approve of what’s arisen in the wave of his latest offensive: death threats leveled at legal authorities who’ve implicated Sarkozy in a roiling illegal finance scandal.
On March 27, Bordeaux Judge Jean-Michel Gentil received a letter menacing his life, those of his intimates and leaders of the left-leaning Union of Magistrates (SM). The apparent reason: Gentil heads a trio of investigating judges who on March 21 officially placed Sarkozy under investigation for “abusing the weakness” and mental frailty of L’Oréal heiress Liliane Bettencourt. That move — which under France’s inquisitorial justice system, is akin to being designated a suspect or being indicted in Anglo-American courts — was based in part on testimony from former Bettencourt employees claiming Sarkozy personally pocketed $193,000 in 2007 from Bettencourt as an illicit donation for his victorious presidential run. The death threat addressed to Gentil less than a week later promised revenge against the “group of red revolutionary judges; totalitarian, rabid and politically committed” involved in the case, and warned the magistrate and SM officials that “one of your people is going to disappear.”
Condemnation of the threat — which also carried in its envelope a blank bullet — was unified across the political sphere, but still left Sarkozy and his supporters in a particularly uncomfortable position. The reason: the already outraged reaction by fellow conservatives to Sarkozy’s official implication in the epic Bettencourt scandal. Sarkozy defenders not only mocked his designation as a de facto suspect in the case as ridiculous and politically motivated, but at times even singled out Gentil personally.
“I object to the way [Gentil] does his work,” said Sarkozy’s former Élysée adviser Henri Guaino on Europe 1 radio on March 22. “I find it disgraceful. I believe [Gentil] has dishonored a man, state institutions [and] the justice system … It would be laughable if it didn’t sully the honor of a former President of the republic and drag France and the republic itself through the mud.”
“This is despicable … who imagines Nicolas Sarkozy exploiting an old woman to get money out of her?” echoed Claude Guéant, former Interior Minister and member of the Sarkozy brain trust, on TV station i-télé. “Who’d believe it?”
Given the heat of those and other responses from the right, it’s little wonder some observers in France blame the hyperbolic reaction to Sarkozy’s legal woes for inspiring Wednesday’s anonymous threat to Gentil. Accusers note the current counteroffensive in Sarkozy’s defense is only the most recent attack on judges by his camp. Throughout his 2007–12 term, Sarkozy publicly blamed rising crime and threats to order on allegedly lenient judges who coddled the criminals that had been hunted down by the heroic police forces Sarkozy often championed. Shortly after his election, Sarkozy — a trained lawyer whose criticism of France’s judiciary is both long and deep — compared magistrates to “peas” for sharing “the same color, the same size and the same absence of taste.”
In 2011, Sarkozy’s attack shifted from personal to existential. The Élysée launched a legal reform whose main objective was to eliminate the French justice system’s Napoleonic-era post of independent investigating magistrate — a move seeking to avoid potential abuses of power by shifting the often explosive and controversial cases those judges handle to more accountable public prosecutors. But the initiative was abandoned as public opinion swung against Sarkozy. Though autonomous investigating magistrates do wield considerable power, opponents noted, entrusting their cases to politically appointed prosecutors would allow politicians and government figures to freely meddle in the justice system and quash troublesome inquiries.
“Can you imagine political officials in the U.S. or Britain publicly attacking the nation’s justice system — and even individual judges in it — in response to an ongoing inquiry involving their leader?” asks anti-terrorism judge Marc Trévidic, who led the battle to derail Sarkozy’s 2011 initiative. He laments the recent comments from French politicians: “Orchestrating a defense of one’s honor, innocence or legal position is normal and right, but no one, anywhere, benefits from slander and political hysterics polluting the legal process.”
Whether overflowing political passions in the case were directly responsible for the death threat sent to Gentil is still under debate. However, they appear to have influenced errors the author of the letter made. Contrary to his claims — and suggestions made by some Sarkozy allies — Gentil’s personal politics are known to be rooted on the right. Perhaps because of that, he’s never been a member of the SM union as his would-be assailant claims. Gentil appears to have shown more neutrality and political disinterest in the Bettencourt case than anyone in France has given the judge credit for.