Real Political Scandals Top France’s Autumn Entertainment Ratings

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France's President Nicolas Sarkozy, France's Labour, Employment and Health Minister Xavier Bertrand (L) and France's Economy and Finance Minister Francois Baroin (R) arrive at the Group of 20 Labour Ministers reunion at the Elysee Palace in Paris, September 26, 2011. (Photo: Eric Feferberg / Reuters)

When a real life saga or news event involving a teeming cast of elite characters spins out of control in improbable directions—and with dramatic consequences–the French have a special expression to describe the situation: C’est du Dallas. That’s as in JR, Sue Ellen, Bobby, and the surprising twists and turns of the multi-layered plots that made the American TV series a worldwide hit from the late 1970s to early 1990s.

These days, France has another show-stopping Dallas-sur-Seine on its hands, as legal investigations into pair of complex scandals have snaked out to ensnare a rising number of rich, famous, and powerful French figures—most of whom have close ties to the Elysée and President Nicolas Sarkozy. As a result, the national press has been all over the attendant drama, and the French public can’t get enough of it–especially given the high political stakes involved. Indeed, the recent crescendo of legal action involving so many well-connected VIPs has led observers to predict the tremors created will continue until France’s power structure has been shaken to its very summit. It was that logic driving the Sept. 29 front page of the daily Libération announcing “The Fall of the President’s Men”—a headline suggesting the scandals may well hold a quasi-Nixonian fate for Sarkozy before they’re done. 

Though their details are very different, the swirling suspicions of political manipulation, conspiring, and dirty tricks common to both current French scandals recreate something similar to the Watergate atmosphere that Libé’s headline evokes. Both French affairs are based on allegations of illegal presidential campaign financing, and both have seen past and present establishment heavyweights fall under the wilting scrutiny of investigative journalists and justice authorities alike. Meanwhile, virtually all of those figures and the claims being leveled against them are some way tied to the Elysée or the President. Little wonder, then, that as the cast of elite actors has broadened, the claims made against them stiffened, and their proximity to the Elysée noted, French commentators have started calling the darkening storm a veritable “affair of state.”

In response, Sarkozy and his aides have hotly denied any involvement in the purported offenses, and have more recently begun to denounce the inquiries targeting the Elysée’s conservative allies as part of a politically motivated effort to smear the president through association. French press reports have quoted Sarkozy pointing out to advisers that some judges leading inquiries tripping up his friends were the same magistrates who oversaw earlier legal cases that threatened to damage the president. Those same reports also cite Sarkozy complaining that while enemy judges and complicit media are currently broadcasting publicly humiliating–but, for now, legally inconclusive–legal procedures netting his backers just seven short months ahead of elections, little note will be made down the line when (he predicts) the investigations are dropped, suspicions cleared, and the political damage will have been done. No one then, the professionally trained lawyer Sarkozy laments, will run similar cover stories about how it was so much noise and accusation for nothing, and how all the reputations tarnished by reports into inevitably futile legal inquiries should be restored. By then it will be too late, he reportedly accused–and just as his opponents had planned.

All of which could be true–and even if so, might not necessarily be a mortal blow to such a formidable campaigner as Sarkozy. Yet his line of defense isn’t getting a lot of sympathy. In a country where political manipulation of the justice system—and quashing of cases threatening to the rich and powerful elite—was a long-standing practice that many people fear the ruling class is trying to restore, the current line out of the Elysée sounds like indignation and rage designed to deflect attention from the scandals at the heart of events.

This blog and other media have reported details of the two smoldering scandals for well over a year now—and we won’t go into all the complex and confounding detail again for space reasons. The first one grew from a row within the family of billionaire heiress Liliane Bettencourt, and involves claims that include she and her husband provided illegal cash to conservative figures to finance campaigns of Sarkozy’s rightist Union for Popular Majority party, and allegations of serious political conflicts of  interest. (See the New York Times’ good and mostly up-to-day digest of the Bettencourt sage here, or search using the words “Bettencourt”, “Woerth”, “Prévost-Desprez “ and/or “L’Oreal”.)

The other scandal arose from a 2002 terror bombing in Karachi, Pakistan that killed 11 French citizens—an attack long blamed on al Qaeda, but which French investigators now think may have been orchestrated by Pakistani military officials and politicians. Their purported motive? Revenge for the decision by Paris to halt promised kickback payments to key Pakistani authorities agreed to under a Franco-Pakistan defense contract. Inquiries into that have provided evidence suggesting millions from the kickbacks that were directed to Pakistan before the payout scheme was halted were re-routed back to French officials. It’s thought that illicit money was then used to fund the 1994 presidential campaign of conservative candidate Edouard Balladur–a popular prime minister Sarkozy served under as economy minister, and whose renegade bid against conservative standard-bearer Jacques Chirac, Sarkozy defected to and was deeply involved in.

The import of such wrongdoing being uncovered in the complicated Karachi tale (time-line here) is both two-fold, and dire. Not only would anyone involved in or aware of the illegal double-kickback scheme be exposed to corruption charges; worse still, revelations they kept quiet about the probable cause and real perpetrators of the 2002 bombing that killed 11 of their fellow citizens–and in order to keep their illicit funding scheme quiet and protect their political careers to boot—would leave them to answer for the blood on their hands. Fully proving that kickback/murder theory is, for now, as remote and formidable an achievement as the consequences of confirming it would be dramatic. But those odds and stakes also explain why advances in the Karachi case have created immediate and enormous media attention in France, and why its Bettencourt twin has also come to be viewed as an epic struggle between justice officials and the law, and the nation’s power elite.

Such a stir broke out again this week, with news Tuesday that a judge investigating the Bettencourt caper has summoned the state prosecutor in the case, Philippe Courroye—a well-known friend and ally of Sarkozy. According to press accounts, the judge issuing the summons will place Courroye himself  under official investigation (a step akin to being named as a suspect in a French inquiry). The reason: evidence and testimony Courroye illegally ordered spying on journalists digging dirt up in the Bettencourt that he wanted kept confidential. By placing a high-ranking and politically connected prosecutor like Courroye under investigation, the magistrate’s intent seems clear: to explore accusations Courroye had repeatedly acted to stifle the Bettencourt affair out of political interests, and undermine justice officials leading parallel inquiries into it. With the Bettencourt scandal having already undermined a member of Sarkozy’s cabinet (a minister who also acted as UMP treasurer)–and even posing a threat to possibly ensnare the president himself eventually—detractors claim Courroye allegedly sought to use his post to quash the entire case from within the legal system, then illicitly procured phone records of journalists who published damaging reports using information leaked to them by dissenting justice officials. As part her summons of Courroye, the investigating judge the illegal spying claim has also called in the head of France’s domestic spy agency and France’s highest-ranking police official to discuss their roles in the controversy. Like Courroye, both men are well-known Sarkozy loyalists who were appointed to their current posts on the president’s orders.

Those eye-opening legal developments followed drama late last week when three other Sarkozy intimates were placed under official investigation in relation to the Karachi/kickback saga. Among those were Sarkozy’s ex-presidential adviser Thierry Gaubert, and Nicolas Bazire—currently a senior executive with luxury group LVMH, and formerly a chief Balladur adviser and key figure in his 1994 presidential run. Investigators suspect Gaubert and Bazire transported illegal funds for Ballard’s campaign in and out of Switzerland—a tale of cash-stuffed suitcases that Gaubert’s estranged wife has confirmed under questioning.

Former Interior Minister and long-time Sarkozy confidante Brice Hortefeux, meanwhile, has also been summoned for questioning by judges in that case; they may charge him with offenses tied to his phone call to Gaubert during the latter’s interrogation. According to transcripts of their conversation published by French media since, Hortefeux sought to warn Gaubert that his wife had already spoken to police about the cash runs to Switzerland, and had “spilled a lot of beans”. Bad luck for Hortefeux that legal authorities had already put a tap on the phone line he called in on, and recorded every word of one Sarkozy stalwart trying to help a another confound justice officials—and as chance would have it, at the very moment Gaubert was being detained and under questioning. A rather face-reddening “heads-up” coming from the man who, as Interior Minister, was just months ago France’s top cop and premier defender of the law.

Still, given the secretive and shadowy milieu in which both scandals arose from, justice officials may never be able to flesh out the conclusive proof that would probably needed in cases where conviction would carry such monumental consequences. But since the court of public opinion renders its verdict according to different criteria, simply seeing all the smoke billowing so thickly around the Elysée may be enough to convince many people there’s a fire blazing away hidden inside. If so, that kind of unofficial condemnation might spell the end to Sarkozy’s re-election hopes.