Spectacular influence-peddling claims in Paris—gleaned from former president Nicolas Sarkozy’s tapped phones—are only the latest layer in a millefeuille of overlapping scandals to threaten his comeback plans. As Le Monde has reported, Sarkozy—allegedly overheard by police on a secret cell line subscribed under a fake name— is suspected of conspiring with his lawyer to co-opt a judge for insider information. A serious allegation. But Sarkozy’s conservative allies have fought the new claims with such blustery panache that President François Hollande’s own government has, incredibly, spent days on the defensive awkwardly battling accusations of political espionage. Sarkozy nostalgics might relish his side’s latest tactical masterclass. But when the dust settles, their contender may be anything but.
Sarkozy, 59, has been trial-ballooning a comeback virtually since he left office after being defeated by the Socialist Hollande in May 2012. But that loss also ended his presidential immunity from prosecution, immediately setting investigators on his heels in a backlog of scandals, rumors about which had haunted his entire presidency.
Sarkozy, either personally or through close associates, has been implicated in no fewer than five affairs of the sort that can take years to move through France’s plodding justice system. Even if Sarkozy is eventually washed of all suspicion—squeaky clean for a new presidential run—his comeback schedule is at the courts’ mercy.
The new corruption allegations came to light last week after investigators intercepting Sarkozy’s calls in an unrelated affair—they were looking into the shocking claim his 2007 campaign may have accepted up to 50 million euros in illegal financing from Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi—picked up allegedly compromising recent chatter between Sarkozy and his lawyer.
Police had been discreetly tapping Sarkozy’s primary cellphone for evidence in the Libyan case as early as Sept. 2013. But more recently another Sarkozy phone, a line registered under the assumed name of Paul Bismuth, drew their attention. Between Jan. 28, Sarkozy’s birthday, and Feb. 11 of this year, authorities intercepted conversations on that line, reportedly with Sarkozy’s longtime counsel Thierry Herzog. (French authorities have noted that lawyer/client privilege wouldn’t make such evidence inadmissible were the lawyer deemed to have participated in a discovered infraction.)
Another Sarkozy phone, a line registered under the assumed name of Paul Bismuth, drew the police’s attention.
The conversations allegedly suggest Sarkozy and Herzog had an inside source feeding them confidential information and intervening in Sarkozy’s favor on a pending ruling related to the so-called Bettencourt affair. In that case, the investigation into charges against Sarkozy has already been dropped. (He had been accused of taking financial advantage of senile L'Oréal heiress Liliane Bettencourt, France’s richest billionaire.) But 10 other people, including Sarkozy’s former campaign treasurer, will face trial. And for Sarkozy, whether his presidential diaries are admissible as evidence or protected by his presidential immunity is key. That outstanding legal question—which was due to be decided March 11—is seen as critical to Sarkozy’s aspirations for a political comeback because the diaries also hold potentially invaluable evidence in yet a third scandal, the so-called Bernard Tapie Affair.
In the end, France’s top court threw out Sarkozy’s plea against the seizure of his diaries, claiming there was no need to rule on the matter in relation to the Bettencourt case since Sarkozy was no longer being probed. Magistrates, then, can continue to use his diaries while the Tapie case looms. Tapie, a businessman close to Sarkozy, controversially received a massive 400 million euro payout to settle a longstanding dispute with the French state in 2008. Sarkozy is suspected of having intervened in Tapie’s favor to reward his political support at great public expense. (Sarkozy has steadfastly denied allegations of wrongdoing in the Tapie case.) Sarkozy’s datebooks are potentially damaging as they could show how close the pair were.
The recent phone intercepts suggest Sarkozy’s apparent inside source, a judge nearing retirement named Gilbert Azibert, allegedly looked to the ex-president to return the favor by intervening on his behalf for a posting in Monaco.
The new Sarkozy allegations follow a weird sequence of scandals in quick succession for France’s embattled right. Still reeling from Sarkozy’s 2012 defeat, the conservatives have a glut of pretenders to the throne poised for a 2017 run that include Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) leader Jean-François Copé, Sarkozy’s ex-prime minister François Fillon, and Sarkozy himself.
In February, Copé faced favoritism accusations alleging he awarded inflated contracts worth millions to cronies organizing Sarkozy’s re-election campaign. And just last week, leaked secret recordings of Elysée Palace conversations made by one of Sarkozy’s most controversial advisors sparked fears there are hundreds more hours of potentially damaging audiofiles that someone, somewhere, is poised to leak at whim. On Friday, a Paris court ordered the French news site Atlantico to take down posted recordings in response to legal action filed by Sarkozy and his wife, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, and awarded damages from the advisor.
Ironically, the Sarkozy phone-tap allegations provided a rare opportunity to unite the right. At the peak of his powers, the pugnacious Sarkozy could deploy a slick political machine, a phalanx of deputies with poison-tip talking points fired en masse, stunning rivals into submission. Likewise this week, an army of conservative figures accused Hollande’s camp of orchestrating political espionage with the phone taps, thereby burying Sarkozy’s alleged impropriety in coordinated invective on who-knew-what-when. And awkward answers from Hollande’s public relations-challenged cabinet made that job easy. Copé led the charge in calling for Justice Minister Christiane Taubira’s immediate resignation, successfully deflecting attention for days. And so the serially unpopular Hollande was robbed of a rare break from public opprobrium.
When questioned on the TF1 nightly newscast Monday about whether the Le Monde report was the first she had heard of the phone taps, Taubira’s answer vaunting the independence of the judicial branch post-Sarkozy was so convoluted that she appeared to forget the exact question. She concluded ambiguously that she “didn’t know before”—taken to mean that, implausibly, she knew nothing of the intercepts until the scoop hit the papers. When it was revealed she actually knew days earlier, after investigators filed an official probe, Taubira was branded a liar. And her subsequent explanations only confused matters. Taubira likely meant to say she didn’t know about the intercepts before the police had already filed their report, implying she exerted no influence on them. But that understanding would have required an exceedingly generous listening, in a French political climate that simply isn’t.
Indeed Taubira, in particular, has been a lightning rod for opposition contempt. An extremely divisive figure, Taubira led the historic 2013 legislative battle to legalize gay marriage and adoption in France last year with poetic aplomb, earning the ire of a determined front of family-values activists. A rare black woman on the national political stage, she was even subject to racial taunts that likened her to a monkey.
Taubira is so thoroughly despised by right-wingers—92 percent of whom didn’t like her in a February BVA poll —that it made perfect sense for the UMP to rally its troops with a resignation push. And yet she is so popular on the left (82 percent liked her in the same poll) that Hollande has little incentive to part with her and may even benefit from standing pat. The conservatives’ clever diversion should prove temporary.
As a rule, every gooey mess of French scandal is thought to boost the far-right National Front, as exasperated mainstream voters stay home. With two key votes coming up, nationwide municipal elections in March and European Parliament elections in May, that is a real concern. Hollande, meanwhile, should be relishing the schadenfreude as rivals suffer scandal after scandal; if he can’t turn this political gift to his advantage, he might want to change careers. As for the scandal-saddled Sarkozy, with what may be a long new battle ahead, he may eventually have to.