Saturday, September 3, 2011

Sarkozy's France: wiretaps, brown envelopes - and never any regrets

As a shrewd student of political history and keen judge of the French pulse, he will probably consider the current accusations against him as merely light skirmishes, writes Anne-Elisabeth Moutet

Sarkozy's France: Wiretaps, brown envelopes - and never any regrets
Sarkozy's game plan for 2012, in other words, was never to refashion himself as the country's ideal son-in-law, but as the safest pair of hands in difficult times Photo: PATRICK HERTZOG/AFP/Getty Images

It was a first for a French president: an apology, gracefully expressed, in front of the Cabinet, the Speakers of the House and Senate, and a roomful of French officials.

France, said Nicolas Sarkozy, had far too long supported authoritarian regimes that had very little to do with her core values. He himself had been "part of this". But no longer. The time had come to make morally exemplary choices.

This was Dr Jekyll-Sarkozy at his best, commenting on French foreign policy in the light of Gaddafi's fall for his traditional annual conference with French ambassadors from around the world. (The French don't apologise. Like the ancient Romans, they think owning up to a mistake is a fatal admission of weakness)

But don't expect this new, fresh approach to be extended to domestic politics, and especially to the skein of old scandals rising up this past week to encumber Mr Sarkozy as he prepares for the eight-month trek to the 2012 Presidential contest.

The two-year-old affaire Bettencourt has come to haunt him and his party again, with fresh allegations of illegal financing of his 2007 campaign by the L'Oréal heiress.

There have also been claims of Secret Service wiretaps on the mobile phones of a Le Monde investigative reporter and the co-author of a new book titled Sarko Killed Me.

The book is compiled of interviews with 27 personalities – ex-ministers, civil servants, television presenters, MPs, a number of journalists – who claim presidential displeasure cost them their career, reputation, or simply the favour they once enjoyed at the Elysée.

Prominent among them is an investigating magistrate, Isabelle Prévost-Desprez, who was removed from the Bettencourt case.

She tells of accusations, from two witnesses, that Liliane Bettencourt once gave Nicolas Sarkozy cash in a brown paper envelope – but says those were relayed outside of a formal interrogation, and therefore she did not include them in the record of her own official inquiry. (The one named witness, a former nurse working for Mrs Bettencourt, denied all yesterday.)

The general feeling in Paris is that Ms Prévost-Desprez claims raise more questions than they answer.

"Why then did she not re-interrogate her witnesses?" asked budget minister Valérie Pécresse: It's a valid question, given that investigating magistrates have notoriously extended powers in France – Eva Joly, who made her name in the 1980s and 1990s as a tough investigating judge in corporate corruption cases, did not hesitate send witnesses to jail to "soften them up", including the chairman of oil giant Elf.

The claims of Secret Service wiretaps, however, may be more of a problem.

The Interior Minister, Claude Guéant, a close Sarkozy associate and former Elysée chief of staff, was quick to answer that nobody's telephone was actually eavesdropped, but admitted that security services requested records of calls to the Le Monde journalist, Gérard Davet, in order to seek the source of a Ministry of Justice whistleblower who'd leaked records on the Bettencourt case.

The whistleblower, who was demoted and sent to an obscure civil service posting in Cayenne, French Guiana, isn't protected by law, but journalistic sources are, in deference to a recent 2007 law passed by ... Nicolas Sarkozy.

Overall, it doesn't yet look as if the current accusations have yet reached the danger stage for the French president.

They will, however, form part of the Opposition general counter-attack after Nicolas Sarkozy's unexpected run of luck in the past few months.

His good fortunes include not just France's role in the Libyan victory, and the baby son his wife Carla Bruni is expecting in October, but also the disappearance of his toughest rival, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, after his arrest on suspicion of suspicion of sexually assaulting a New York chambermaid.

A deeply polarising figure, Sarkozy was never elected because the French liked him.

Soon nicknamed the "bling-bling president" for his love of Rolex watches, Ray-Ban aviator sun-specs, thick cigars, holidays on friendly tycoons' yachts, and trophy wives, he was seen as the "President of the rich" after a very first budget that limited to 50p the top tax rate.

It didn't help either to be nicknamed "the American" for his eagerness to rejoin Nato, his considered support for presidents Bush and Obama, even his habit to jog in a NYPD tee-shirt given him by Rudy Giuliani.

The French prefer their leaders, from Louis XIV to de Gaulle, to stay icily aloof: Sarkozy's populist manner, four-letter-word use, and short temper did him no favours.

They did, however, respect his courage, believing that he would not shy of making hard reforms after his predecessor Jacques Chirac avoided any kind of social conflict for twelve years.

Sarkozy's game plan for 2012, in other words, was never to refashion himself as the country's ideal son-in-law, but as the safest pair of hands in difficult times.

As a shrewd student of political history and keen judge of the French pulse, he will probably consider the current accusations against him as merely light skirmishes, which will be forgotten soon.

He knows the French despise money, are overall tolerant of sexual hijinks as long as they're consensual, and are forgiving of a degree of political dirty work. (To this day, the most popular president of the Fifth Republic after de Gaulle remains François Mitterrand, despite the fact that he ordered over 5,000 illegal wiretaps in order to conceal his natural daughter and parallel family.)

Unlike most male politicians, Sarkozy has already understood the one great change in the electorate, wrought by the DSK affair – French women voters will no longer tolerate sexism.

That's why he immediately dropped his junior minister and suburban mayor Georges Tron, when Tron was accused of foot fetishism with his female City Hall employees, whom he pressured into allowing him to give them massages. (Tron is now the object of two separate criminal lawsuits.)

He also knows that for centuries the French accepted their government's need to keep a watchful eye on the citizens: until a year ago, there was a police department known as the Renseignements Généraux, or RG, whose business it was to compile dossiers on any person of note in the country, so that the government would not be wrongfooted if "notables" suddenly found themselves in the spotlight.

(Le Monde recently published some sizzling 2007 RG records on Dominique Strauss-Kahn's visits to swingers' clubs and to prostitutes in the Bois de Boulogne.)

Few people in France believe that because the RG were abolished in name, there doesn't remain some police unit somewhere, in charge of knowing who's doing what where.

As for losing the favour of the president when you do something he doesn't like, that's the way the country has been run since the Middle-Ages, and is perfectly familiar to anyone here employed either in the civil service, or in the notoriously top-down French corporate world.

Meanwhile, the last thing Nicolas Sarkozy plans to do is to apologise.

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