December 29, 2014

Letter From Paris: A Week Like No Other in French Politics

Former President Nicolas Sarkozy was at the center of an extraordinary week in French politics.

Former President Nicolas Sarkozy was at the center of an extraordinary week in French politics.

It has been a week out of the ordinary in French politics, to say the least. A summary of the sequence of events may help the foreign reader in deciphering the situation.

It all started March 2 with a few revelations about the UMP (Union for Popular movement) right wing party. Jean François Copé, UMP president, was denounced in the weekly magazine “Le Point” of surfacturation (over billing) of expenses incurred during the 2012 electoral campaign. A “dot.com” company had obtained the contract without preliminary invitations to tender. Copé, looking wan and thin, reacted almost emotionally to the attack. He announced that all the accounts of the UMP would be locked in a sealed room contingent upon the other political parties as well as the media, doing the same .

Then, on March 3, the whistle-blowing satirical newspaper, “Canard Enchainé,” reported that Patrick Buisson, a collaborator of former president Nicolas Sarkozy, recorded the latter’s conversations. Buisson was part of Sarkozy’s first circle and his closest adviser. He made the recordings himself for hours on end, from morning to evening, with an old-fashion dictaphone carried in his pockets. Some of the recorded conversations took place just prior to a planned cabinet reshuffle — in other words, they were politically sensitive.

The question was: who gave the recordings to the press? Buisson’s lawyer vouched that his client did not. But what was suspicious was the fact that Buisson told his son (father and son have been estranged for two years) that those recordings were a “life insurance” and that cela peut toujours servir (One never knows, it might be useful someday)

But this was just the beginning. An avalanche of revelations, which followed – all involving the wiretapping of Nicolas Sarkozy to hamper his return to the political life – was even more serious and turned into a full blown political crisis reaching the top level of the Executive and of the Judiciary.

Four legal cases or “affaires,” which had been dormant, were resurfacing now: the 2008 arbitrage-granting of 403 millions to businessman and former minister Bernard Tapie by the Credit Lyonnais; the “retro- commissions” obtained from Pakistan after the Karachi terrorist attack in 2002 ; the alleged financing from Libyan president Gaddafi in 2007 ; the funds given by Liliane Bettencourt, one of the richest women in the world and heir to the l’Oreal company.

These four affaires share the common factor of suspicion in involvement of the illegal financing of Sarkozy’s electoral campaigns of 2007 and 2012. Last October, Sarkozy was cleared and received a non-lieu (no ground for public prosecution) in the Bettencourt affaire.

On March 6, the headlines of the daily “Le Monde” were a bombshell: the former president’s phone had been tapped since April 13 by orders of the judges d’instruction ( investigating judges running preliminary inquiry) – a totally unprecedented occurrence in the French Republic. In early March, the judges opened an inquiry for traffic of influence and corruption against Sarkozy, his lawyer Thierry Herzog, and Gilbert Azibert, general counsel at the Cour de Cassation (highest judiciary court in France).

An aggressive perquisition (search) was conducted in Herzog’s Bordeaux residence. Ten police and judges showed up at eight in the morning. The lawyer’s computer and his portable phone were seized. The taking of the former president ‘s personal “carnets” (agendas) created a great commotion. In a television talk show, the president of the Bar commented that these actions were reminiscent of the Stasi.

Up to that point it was all bad news for the former president. The socialist government had remained prudently quiet. The wiretapping of Sarkozy was legal (he did not have immunity any more) as long as there was a suspicion of infraction. However, the accumulation of proceedings against him was beginning to be seen as harassment. By coincidence, Eliane Houlette was appointed in the new position of “National Financial Attorney” on March 3 in order to deal with corruption and tax frauds. The first case was to be Sarkozy’s.

Then the blame game seemed to move from the opposition to the majority. As a journalist commented, the government turned this gold – Sarkozy on the run – to lead, with the government violating the independence of justice. The Garde des Sceaux or Minister of Justice Christiane Taubira, a high-spirited and smart woman, born in Guyana, was put on the defensive and even accused of lying.

Did she know the content of the recordings? When did the prime minister and the minister of interior (Secretary of the Interior) know? Their evasive and even conflicting answers made them appear guilty when their main sin was probably just to be disorganized.

By the end of that memorable week, “Le Monde” published a letter, co-signed by the most eminent members of the judiciary corps, calling for moderation. The letter praised transparency, but said that lawyers were not above the law, and that wiretapping was only legal if carried out by independent judges. It also demanded a return to one of the basic rules of the French (and American) institutions – the separation of power between Executive and Judiciary.

HeadshotAbout the author: Nicole Prévost Logan divides her time between Essex and Paris, spending summers in the former and winters in the latter. She will write a regular column for us from her Paris home where her topics will include politics, economy, social unrest — mostly in France — but also in other European countries. She also will cover a variety of art exhibits and the performing arts in Europe. Logan is the author of ‘Forever on the Road: A Franco-American Family’s Thirty Years in the Foreign Service,’ an autobiography of her life as the wife of an overseas diplomat, who lived in 10 foreign countries on three continents. Her experiences during her foreign service life included being in Lebanon when civil war erupted, excavating a medieval city in Moscow and spending a week under house arrest in Guinea.