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The downfall of the Nicolas Sarkozy – the ‘bling bling’ president

Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy arrives at court for the verdict of his trial for corruption and influence-peddling - Credit: Getty Images

Few politicians have fallen quite as far and quite as fast as Nicolas Sarkozy.

Nicolas Sarkozy marked his finest political hour in characteristically brash style. The night of his election victory over Socialist rival Ségolène Royal on May 6, 2007, he spent celebrating at a private bash at the exclusive Le Fouquet’s restaurant on the Champs-Elysées.

It was a select gathering of senior politicians, business leaders and celebrities that came to define the “bling bling” presidency that followed, and sealed Sarkozy’s reputation for ostentation and arrogance, even in a country known for its remote, self-regarding and self-replicating political elite.

The contrast with the lowest moment of his career could hardly be starker. On Monday, the one-term president – defeated by Royal’s former partner François Hollande in 2012 – left a Paris court room having been convicted of corruption charges and sentenced to three years imprisonment.

In truth, it is unlikely that Sarkozy – who has already said he will appeal the verdict – will ever see the inside of a cell. Two years of his sentence have been suspended and for the remaining one, he is expected to be confined to his home in the Villa Montmorency – a gated block of 19th-century mansions popular with Russian oligarchs and ageing French celebrities in Paris’s exclusive 16th arrondissement – where he will have to wear an electronic ankle bracelet. With France having endured a year of lockdowns and curfews caused by the pandemic, the former president has at least had to time to prepare for his house arrest.

Sarkozy’s conviction came at the end of an astonishing three-week trial in which the evidence against him was laid out. Sarkozy and his lawyer, were found guilty of plotting to bribe a magistrate to hand over inside information about a 2014 police inquiry into the former president’s campaign finances. Using ‘burner’ mobile telephones, registered to fake names, the duo were recorded by detectives offering the official, a job in the tax haven of Monaco in return for details of the probe, which was looking into illegal alleged payments to Sarkozy by Libyan dictator Colonel Muammar Gaddafi and the L’Oreal heiress, Liliane Bettencourt.

Sarkozy is the first former French head of state to be given such a sentence, although others have had close shaves. In 2011, his predecessor, Jacques Chirac, was convicted of misuse of public funds during his days as mayor of Paris, but escaped custody with a two year suspended sentence. Other senior political figures have also been convicted in court, including former prime ministers and presidential front-runners Alain Juppé and Francois Fillon, as well as mayor Patrick Balkany.

Quite why France should have such a roll-call of shame is something that has long troubled the Fifth Republic. As John Kampfner wrote on these pages recently, like the American system, politics in France is particularly vertical. Power rests with the president, and flows from him. So does influence, hence the lobbying from business, before and after elections. Funding a campaign buys credits in the political bank. The risks were previously considered minimal as few people were exposed, and fewer still punished. But that is changing.

Rightly or wrongly, the result is a widespread sense, bubbling away across large sections of the public, that France’s elite has been getting away with it for too long, living high on the hog while ordinary people are, depending on whom you ask, robbed of hard-won rights and benefits or taxed into the ground.

It is this sentiment that helped drive the sense of inchoate rage of the gilets jaunes movement, and the scenes (perpetually misunderstood by the UK press) of striking workers each time they are threatened with ‘reforms’ by the political class.

Sarkozy has been a focus of such sentiment right from the moment of that bash at Le Fouquet’s – which he did at least have the self awareness to concede he regretted.

Even in the hyper-polarised world of French politics, he was always a divisive figure. Despised by the left for his liberal economic programme, he also raised hackles on both sides for his conspicuous consumption, and penchant for Rolex watches, Ray-Ban sunglasses and gold medallions.

Known to be pugnacious to the point of rudeness, he was characterised as vane, self-entitled and arrogant. His diminutive stature was used to mock him, even among fellow leaders.

David Cameron was once caught rather undiplomatically calling him a “dwarf”, while Barack Obama described him in his memoirs as  “all emotional outbursts and overblown rhetoric” and like “a figure out of a Toulouse-Lautrec painting”. The former US president witheringly described the Frenchman as “never straying from his primary, barely disguised interest, which was to be at the centre of the action and take credit for whatever it was that might be worth taking credit for”.

In France, where politicians are often given some slack, his lavish lifestyle was roundly condemned – including, often unfairly it has to be said, his marriage to singer and model Carla Bruni– and is credited with eventually propelling the centre-left back into office in the form of Hollande. This was, let it not be forgotten, the era of the global economic crisis.

Yet he had arrived in office with great hopes that he might achieve lasting change for France. Unlike his predecessors and successors, Sarkozy did not attend the Ecole Nationale d’Administration (the grande école that acts as a production line for politicians and senior civil servants) and saw himself as a breath of fresh air for his increasingly stagnant country. Elected at 52 he was also, in French terms at least, young.

That he left office after one term, and without achieving much of what he hoped, does not single him out in French politics. And even after his defeat, he remained an influential figure in his centre-right party, now called the Republicans.

Indeed, before his conviction, the political rumour mill was busy grinding-out the idea that he might make a triumphant return by casting himself in the role of the candidate against chaos in next year’s presidential election. It was never a realistic prospect, and obviously out of the question now.

How his party moves on from this scandal will be an important factor in next year’s race. The Socialists have yet to recover from earlier electoral knock-out blows they received at the hands of Emmanuel Macron and his En Marche party, but the Republicans had, until now, stayed in the fight.

Of course, the one figure who has the most to gain from the seeming exhaustion of France’s political élite is Marine Le Pen. Hardly herself immune from legal problems – she is currently on trial for sharing jihadist tweets – the National Rally leader has long positioned herself as the antidote to élitisme.

Then again, Le Pen awkwardly leapt to Sarkozy’s defence, telling French radio that judges should not be the arbiters of who can run in elections and that attorney-client privilege was sacred. Both fair points, perhaps, but difficult to disentangle from her party’s own legal travails.

As for Sarkozy, he will be aware that his troubles are far from over. Further charges await, including alleged campaign finance overspending in 2012, while prosecutors are still investigating the claims that in 2007 he received funding from Gaddafi.

As he prepares for his confinement, and the prospect of future days in court, the former president will know that he is unlikely to be back at the Le Fouquet’s for the foreseeable.

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