The conviction of a former president on corruption charges is a major humiliation for the French State, writes Susan Ram
It’s difficult now to recall the media hyperbole, and ecstasy in right-wing circles, which surrounded the arrival of Nicolas Sarkozy at the Élysée Palace (the official residence of French presidents) back in 2007.
Back then, all was riding high for the ambitious far-right politician (and future convicted criminal). As the candidate of the Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), the French equivalent of the Conservative Party, Sarkozy had just scored a convincing victory over Ségolène Royal, his Socialist Party rival, in the second round of that year’s presidential elections.
After taking over the reins from his UMP predecessor, Jacques Chirac, under whose presidency he had occupied senior ministerial posts, Sarkozy speedily set about constructing what would be dubbed his ‘hyperpresidency’: a sort of governance on steroids.
He started off by awarding himself a pay rise, doubling his official emolument to 240,000 Euros. Then came a raft of neo-liberal policy announcements, all geared to reinforcing his status in global financial and neoliberal political circles as a (long overdue) Gallic incarnation of Margaret Thatcher. There were quirky initiatives (one of the first foreign guests to be invited to Sarkozy-era Paris, for reasons that later became evident, was Libyan dictator Muhammad Gaddafi) and multiple soundbites expressed with all the pungency and pugnacity the mainstream media had come to expect (and grovel before).
Ensconced in his palace with his glamorous new wife, the Italian-born singer Carla Bruni, ‘Sarko’ seemed the embodiment of that misogynist French trope: the alpha male in overdrive. Together, the couple established new benchmarks in glitzy, lavish living, united in their appetite for luxury and ‘bling-bling’.
Outflanking Le Pen and the Front National
Politically speaking, Sarkozy’s principal contribution during his single-term presidency was to position himself as the mainstream right’s alternative to Jean-Marie Le Pen, the founder leader of the fascist Front National. In 2002, to the consternation of global commentators, Le Pen had forced Chirac into a second-round run-off in the battle for the presidency.
Ever the calculator, Sarkozy set about his groundwork. During his second stint as interior minister under Chirac, he created waves through the muscular, openly racist stance he adopted in relation to the 2005 ‘riots’: a three-week wave of uprisings by oppressed black and Muslim youth sequestered in suburban sink estates.
Even before the start of the uprising in October 2005, Sarkozy had boasted of his resolve to deal with these banlieue ‘hooligans’ by ‘clearing them out with a Kârcher (power hose)’. Now he unleashed a further torrent of abuse, describing those at the sharp end of French institutionalised racism as voyous (thugs) and racaille (scum).
By the time of his 2007 presidential bid, Sarkozy was championing the notion of a ‘clean break’: a sound smack of firm government, signalling an end to the compromises and retreats allegedly imposed on a succession of right-wing governments. As he famously put it in an interview with Le Figaro in April 2007, ‘We must liquidate the heritage of May 1968.’
Central to this mission was Sarkozy’s artful appropriation of the very weapons being deployed by the Front National to drive its growing electoral success. His acute political nose drew him to the issue of laïcité, the specifically French form of secularism, and to the possibilities opened up by its radical reinterpretation at the hands of the fascist right.
From the left, Jim Wolfreys, a particularly astute and politically savvy analyst of the Sarkozy phenomenon, highlights Sarko’s singular contribution to advancing Islamophobia as a racist political mobilisation strategy in France. In his 2018 book, The Republic of Islamophobia, Wolfreys argues that:
‘[Sarkozy] appeared to grasp better than any other mainstream figure the relationship between racist demagogy and authoritarianism that underpinned the electoral success of the FN… Sarkozy moved to position himself as the figure capable not just of making speeches about the danger of immigration, but of acting upon them… Sarkozysme was a symptom of the evolution of the French right as it embraced a neoliberal outlook reliant on a negative charge of scapegoating and discrimination’ (pp.54-55)
Even so, Sarkozy’s crudeness and bellicose instincts could land him in trouble. There can be few people in France who have forgotten that moment, during his official visit to the 2008 agriculture show in Paris (a key fixture for any presidential incumbent), when Sarko lost it with an attendee who refused to shake his hand. ‘Get lost, dumbass!’ was his less than diplomatic riposte.
In the end, it was the deep-seated problems familiar to every French government in recent decades that brought the Sarkozy Show to an abrupt and unprepossessing end. By 2010, his presidency, beset by economic woes (including the highest unemployment levels seen for a decade) was running into the ground, its declining fortunes highlighted by regional elections results that indicated a marked resurgence of the Front National.
Sarkozy’s claim to have isolated the FN by ‘capturing’ its electorate was exposed as a myth. Two years later, his bid to secure a second term was scuppered by the improbably effective challenge mounted by his Socialist Party opponent, the charisma-free Francois Hollande.
Meanwhile, rumours about Sarkozy’s unorthodox financial dealings were already circulating. There was talk of lavish inflows of funds from Liliane Bettencourt, heiress to the L’Oréal millions, during his 2007 election bid. And strange news was emerging from Libya, where Sarkozy had played a front-rank role in the West’s invasion and the toppling of the Gaddafi regime in 2011.
During the conflict, Saif-al-Islam Gaddafi, the dictator’s second son, claimed in an interview with Euronews that the Libyan state had donated 50 million Euros to Sarkozy’s 2007 presidential campaign in exchange for access and favours. This claim was then substantiated by documentary evidence published by the investigative website Médiapart, accompanied by the claim by Ziad Takieddine, a Lebanese-French arms broker, that he had personally handed Sarkozy three briefcases stuffed with cash.
In his customary manner, Sarkozy denied it all. In 2012, in the aftermath of his election drubbing, he had declared ‘You won’t hear about me anymore’ before departing for the lucrative international lecture circuit. To no one’s great surprise, however, he was soon on the political comeback trail, by 2014 making clear his intention to run again for the presidency. That year saw him stand for, and win, the leadership of the UMP, now rebranded as Les Républicains (LR).
Then humiliation struck. In 2014, Sarkozy became the first former head of state in France to be taken into custody for questioning. His interrogation resulted in charges of corruption, influence-peddling and violation of legal secrecy: the very charges that would seal his doom during his subsequent trial and eventual conviction.
Implications for the French state
The successful prosecution of a former head of state facing the most sordid of charges can only be an intense embarrassment for the French state. Much in the way the flag is invoked in the United States to rally the nation and deflect inconvenient truths, the ‘valeurs de la Rèpublique’ (the values of the Republic) are routinely extolled in official functions the length and breadth of France.
That this is not the first occasion a former occupant of the Élysée Palace has faced criminal charges only adds to the national shame. In 2011, Chirac – Sarkozy’s mentor – was found guilty of embezzlement, but then let off with a two-year suspended sentence.
It seems that Sarkozy, too, is set to escape the rigours of some French variant of Sing Sing, the notorious high-security ‘correctional facility’ near New York. Even so, he will carry the stigmata of an electronic tag for the twelve months of his house arrest.
Defiant to the end, Sarkozy is not helping crisis-management efforts by the French establishment with his endless denials of wrongdoing (‘I am not a crook’) and declarations of intent to fight on.
In January this year, prosecutors opened another probe into alleged influence-peddling by Sarkozy over his advisory activities in Russia. And on March 2, he was taken into police custody again: this time as part of the inquiry into what exactly was delivered in those Libyan briefcases back in 2007.
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Susan Ram is a writer, editor and journalist based in south-west France. She's currently at work on a book about the French Left, for publication in India, where she lived for many years.
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