New Claims Link Sarkozy To France’s Epic Bettencourt Scandal

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France's President Nicolas Sarkozy in front of the Elysee Palace in Paris, France, August 24, 2011. (Photo: Jacques Brinon / EPA)

As far as scandals go, it’s the gift that keeps giving—and now it’s starting to give French President Nicolas Sarkozy the same pain in the derrière that it previously inflicted on his fellow conservatives. “It” is the now notorious “affaire Bettencourt”a tangle of allegations involving manipulation, influence peddling, and financial improprieties that began proliferating last year from a row within the family of billionaire L’Oréal heiress Liliane Bettencourt. Indications of misconduct and troubling conflicts of interest that exploded from that private-clash-gone-public saga have shaken France’ legal and political system to their foundations, and cost numerous people involved their jobs—including a key member of Sarkozy’s cabinet. Now that recently quelled storm looks set to begin raging anew with the publication of a new book containing accounts of Sarkozy having personally pocketed the same cash campaign contributions from Bettencourt that several other conservatives also allegedly illegally received. The massive French media coverage the book and it claim provoked an immediate and categorical denial from the Elysée. Meaning, the next round of the Bettencourt Bust-Up can now begin.The new claims come in a new book by two Le Monde journalists profiling an array of people they say were targeted by politically motivated attack campaigns mounted by the Elysée. Such efforts, the book says, were undertaken to undermine or discredit figures considered hostile or threatening to Sarkozy’s political fortunes. Among those individuals featured is Isabelle Prévost-Desprez, an investigating magistrate who led the inquiry into the Bettencourt case as it blossomed from a mother-daughter battle over handling of the family fortune to a scandal ensnaring public figures and politicians with claims of influence peddling and financial wrong-doing. Excerpts of the book in the French press Wednesday quote Prévost-Desprez describing how both real and anticipated intimidation issuing from the summit of French political power led many Bettencourt employees who testified in her investigation to hedge what they said against the pay-back they feared would result from their statements. By way of example, Prévost-Desprez recounted how a Bettencourt family nurse informally revealed something she felt she simply couldn’t state for the record: that prior to his 2007 presidential election, Sarkozy was one of several officials from the conservative Union for a Popular Majority party (UMP) who personally accepted cash campaign contributions from the Bettencourts. Though such payments wouldn’t necessarily be illegal if limited in amount and duly accounted for, earlier testimony and evidence in the case indicates cash campaign donations other UMP figures received during visits to the Bettencourt home fell well beyond the maximum $200 in cash and $10,000 per-donor limit imposed by law.

The Elysée responded to the accusations attributed to Prévost-Desprez as “unfounded, lying, and scandalous”. Government member and spokesperson Valérie Pécresse also rejected the claim, telling France 2 television Wednesday morning that when people—justice officials like Prévost-Desprez above all—“have accusations to make, they should do so before legal authorities”.

They should indeed—but this is no normal tale of calm, independent legal inquiry into claims of run-of-the-mill wrongdoing. In fact, the Bettencourt case is such a tangle of big money, political power, and alleged conniving, manipulation, and tampering with the investigation into it that it’s probably best for uninitiated readers to bone up on it with a nice summary the New York Times ran on the scandal last year. Once they have, they’ll see how revelations into what began as a family rift gradually reached snaked out to trip the elder Bettencourt’s financial advisors, and linked them to Sarkozy’s former Budget Minister Eric Woerth. Those ties then not only generated suspicions of conflict of interest by Woerth on several fronts, but also produced allegations he accepted illegal donations from the Bettencourts in his role as UMP’s treasurer—a party function he continued assuming after Sarkozy’s 2007 presidential election, and Woerth’s appointment to government. Woerth has continually denied any wrong-doing, and was especially adamant in that when it was learned Bettencourt’s financial advisers—who had hired Woerth’s wife after the 2007 election—had convinced Bettencourt to park millions of her money in undisclosed Swiss accounts to avoid paying taxes on them despite Woerth’s much-heralded drive against tax cheats.

For over six months as the uproar raged, Sarkozy stood by the beleaguered Woerth—first by seeking to stem the rising stench of scandal indirectly then by counter-punching to suggest it was all a political slur campaign. Finally, Sarkozy sought to create distance between the drama and his cabinet by ditching Woerth during a reshuffle this year. But the calming of the Bettencourt scandal that followed arose primarily from the mother and daughter originally central to it reconciling and resolving their dispute—and thereby robbing the story the main peg that had kept it fixed in the headlines. Now, thanks to the new book and Prévost-Desprez’s claims it’s back—for Sarkozy and the ruling UMP, much in the way Jack Torrance comes back via the bathroom door  in The Shining.

So does this mean serious trouble for Sarkozy just eight months before his expected re-election bid–and already burdened with one of the lowest popularity scores in French presidential history? Sorta.

On the one hand, the once-removed allegation recounted in the book by Prévost-Desprez was never given as official testimony, meaning it isn’t in the records and carries no legal significance. Meanwhile, Prévost-Desprez herself has been a controversial figure in a case that was taken out of her hands and moved to a trio of investigating magistrates in far-off Bordeaux. True, that move was made in part because Prévost-Desprez entered into direct and open conflict with her hierarchy amid accusations she had over-stepped her authority, presumably driven by political interests. Meanwhile, as noted above, even if the nurse described as having seen Sarkozy accept cash donations steps up and enters that testimony into the official case, her allegation must not only be proven, but also found to have violated campaign finance laws. Barring evidence that has failed to surface for over a year now, that’s not going to happen.

On the other hand, however, the powerful prosecutor Prévost-Desprez so publicly defied is well-known as a Sarkozy intimate who was also directly consulted by Bettencourt—at the urging of Elysée officials—in her efforts to get the initial case her daughter had filed derailed. Indeed, signs the prosecutor himself had exceeded his purview for what could be interpreted as political interests led to his superiors to entrust he withdrew from Prévost-Desprez to the three judges well beyond his jurisdiction in Bordeaux. Though their inquiry almost certainly won’t be wound up (much less taken to court) before next spring’s presidential contest, the return of the l’affaire Bettencourt and all the swirling suspicions around it can’t be too pleasing to the Elysée.

The main reason? Many jurors in France’s court of public opinion already view Sarkozy and French conservatives in much the way some American voters regard Republicans: as the loyal friends of rich and powerful backers they often pamper at the expense of the less affluent majority who not only pay higher tax rates than the wealthy, but have also assumed the brunt of austerity cuts. For that reason, the potential mental image in voters’ minds of Sarkozy pocketing wads of cash from a political patron who happens to be France’s richest billionaire is one the Elysée could happily live without. That’s especially so for a president who has yet to overcome his own notorious “bling-bling” reputation—and who still sports a glowing tan from a summer vacation spent on his billionaire wife’s family estate.

None of that, of course, is deadly to Sarkozy’s re-election hopes. Similarly, the fact that the two authors of the new book have also repeatedly broken new details in the Bettencourt case won’t make the allegation they reveal any more legally threatening to Sarkozy. But it all does offer another example how France’s favorite scandal has not yet exhausted its formidable gift giving capacity–and how any new demonstrations of that are likely to be more cadeaux empoisonnés for the Elysée.