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France’s familiarity with political scandals

As former president Nicola Sarkozy is sentenced to house arrest for illegal campaign financing, JOHN KAMPFNER wonders why French politics seems so susceptible to financial scandal.

French former prime minister Edouard Balladur (second left) arrives for his trial at the Court of Justice of the Republic, in Paris - Credit: AFP via Getty Images

In these Covid times, we all get our kicks where we can. In France, one source of amusement, or at least distraction, has been to follow the corruption. Rarely a week passes, it seems, when a leading light from the Fifth Republic isn’t mired in sleaze. Some of it dates back years, but the passage of time does not lessen the interest.

The latest to appear in the dock is Edouard Balladur. The 91-year former prime minister has gone on trial accused of financing his failed 1995 presidential campaign with kickbacks from international arms deals. He has denied wrongdoing, saying he didn’t know that any money had been illegally raised and was not responsible for overseeing the campaign budget. He apparently told investigators the thought the money had been coming in from the sale of T-shirts at rallies.

Balladur is the latest politician caught up in what was known as the Karachi affair. The scandal revolves around two arms contracts. Three government officials have already been found guilty of taking money from the sale of submarines to Pakistan and frigates to Saudi Arabia in deals signed between 1993 and 1995. The story gets murkier. It came to light only after a bus carrying French defence engineers was blown up in Karachi in May 2002, killing 15 people, including 11 employees of a French naval group. Initially Al-Qaeda was believed to be responsible, but it was later claimed that the attack was in retaliation for the non-payment of promised French bribes.

Another senior figure from that era, François Leotard, former defence minister, is accused of having created an “opaque network” of intermediaries for the Pakistan and Saudi contracts. While Balladur appeared at the Court of Justice for the first hearing on January 18, Leotard, who is 13 years younger at a sprightly 78, cited ill health for his absence – something that the courts appear to be relatively indulgent of.

This trial is the mere appetiser, the amuse bouche, for one involving Monsieur Bling-Bling, former president Nicolas Sarkozy. In November, Sarko became the first former head of state to be committed for trial, accused of corruption and influence-peddling. He had spent years trying to get the investigation thrown out, accusing his successors and adversaries of a political witch-hunt.

As with the Balladur case, as with others, this also originates from campaign funding. It is alleged that Sarkozy received 50 million euros from Libya’s General Muammar Gaddafi to fund his 2007 campaign. Sarkozy, who was president between 2007 and 2012, has denied any knowledge of that money. That case remains ongoing.

The judicial system had previously tried to land another charge on him, also relating to the 2007 presidential election. The investigation revolved around alleged donations from the ailing L’Oreal heiress, Liliane Bettencourt, to Sarko’s campaign. At the time of her death in 2017, Bettencourt was the world’s richest woman, and 14th richest person.

That case was eventually dropped, but by then other investigations had started. Prosecuting magistrates enjoy exalted status, which is what makes this episode so intriguing. In the latest case against Sarkozy, the prosecution alleges he and his lawyer attempted to bribe a senior magistrate, Gilbert Azibert, to hand over secret information from the Bettencourt investigation. In return, he is supposed to have offered to help secure the magistrate a plum job on the Cote d’Azur. This case was dubbed the ‘bugging affair’ after it was revealed that detectives had begun wiretapping Sarkozy’s communications a year after he left office.

The verdict is expected to be delivered in March. If found guilty, Sarkozy could face up to four years in jail, although two of those would be suspended. That would be an extraordinary moment.

He is facing trouble on another front. A few weeks ago, the satirical newspaper and scandal-unearther-in-chief, Le Canard Enchainé, reported that Sarko’s second wife, Cécilia Attias, had been employed as a parliamentary aide, paid a decent state salary for a fictitious job. If precedent is anything to go by, this could also land him a prison term. Last June a court convicted François Fillon, who was prime minister under Sarkozy, and his Welsh wife, Penelope, for embezzling funds.

The family was said to have benefitted from a payroll totalling one million euros for non-jobs for her and two of their children. The court sentenced Fillon to five years in jail, three of them suspended, and ordered him to pay a 375,000 euro fine. He was disbarred from public office for 10 years. Penelope was given a three-year suspended sentence. Immediately afterwards, the couple, who denied the accusations, said they would appeal against the verdict.

The list continues. Jacques Chirac, Sarkozy’s mentor, was given a two-year suspended sentence in 2011 for diverting public funds and abusing public trust during his tenure as mayor of Paris. He cited ill health and “memory loss” for not attending court.

Prize for the most colourful case must surely to Valery Giscard d’Estaing, the president from 1974-81 (they had longer terms of office back then), who died last December. In 1979, Le Canard Enchainé reported that Giscard – ‘Monsieur Afrique’ and friends of several African dictators, had been given two diamonds by Jean-Bedel Bokassa, ‘president for life’ of the Central African Republic. “They were not big stones,” Giscard d’Estaing responded to the allegations, before adding that he had sold the gems and given the money to charities in the country. That scandal put paid to his re-election chances.

Like the American system, politics in France is ostentatiously vertical. Power resides with the president and flows from him. So does influence; hence the lobbying from business, before elections and after. To help fund a campaign buys credits in the political bank. The risks previously were minimal as few people were exposed, and fewer still punished. Less so now.

One person so far not to have left any financial stain is Francois Hollande, president from 2012 to 2017. Known as “flanby”, (a type of caramel custard), he is best remembered for trying to disguise himself in a black motorbike helmet while being driven on the back of a scooter on his way to a tryst with a famous actress.

Which brings us to the present day. Emmanuel Macron probably owes his victory in 2017 to Fillon, who was odds-on favourite to succeed Hollande before ‘Penelopegate’ struck. Imperious and unloved, Macron has nonetheless consolidated his authority at the political centre. Parties to the right and left are struggling to mount a credible challenge to him ahead of next year’s presidential elections, presaging a re-run of Macron versus Marine Le Pen.

Macron has yet to be accused of any financial misdemeanour – a remarkable exception to the rule. That has not lessened the disenchantment, however. For many French voters, the elections will mark another example of an unrepresentative elite providing them with a further set of unpalatable choices.

Which is where Covid comes in. France’s strong anti-vaxxer movement is linked to a broad disillusionment, which extends to the ‘medical elite’ and a number of health scandals dating back decades. In the 1990s, a mass campaign to vaccinate children against hepatitis B coincided with a jump in multiple sclerosis cases, though studies did not find a convincing link between them. Around the same time, health authorities were discovered to have knowingly distributed blood products contaminated with HIV to haemophiliacs in the 1980s.

More recently, and most damagingly, came the H1N1 scandal in 2009. The government massively over-ordered 94 million vaccine doses at a cost of nearly 900 million euros. The health ministry later cancelled more than half the order, but the damage was done. The opposition accused ministers of being in league with big pharma. In the end, 323 people died of H1N1, only six million were vaccinated and 19 million doses were destroyed.

Voters are long used to allegations of malfeasance in politics and business. Indeed, cases such as these are usually met with a Gallic “what did you expect?” shrug of the shoulders. They might express fury to pollsters; they might dabble with Le Pen and others on the fringes, but life goes on. When this disillusionment seeps into responses to public health emergencies, the stakes suddenly become a whole lot higher.