France's disgraced coach gives his president the blues

France’s President Nicolas Sarkozy’s first looming Cabinet crisis has been triggered neither by the announcement of his own divorce nor by the transport paralysis caused by the past week’s public servants’ strikes. It comes down to rugby.

On Monday morning Bernard Laporte, Sarkozy’s jogging partner and coach of the disgraced France rugby XV, is due to take up his long-promised new job as Secretary of State for Sports. But in a move that has reportedly left the President speechless, Laporte’s future Cabinet colleagues have engineered the revival of a tax fraud investigation against him.

Responding to reporters’ questions at the end of the Lisbon summit on Friday, Sarkozy failed to grasp the opportunity to support Laporte, saying only that “the presumption of innocence is important in this case as in others”.

The 43-year-old coach of Les Bleues is not only being hung out to dry by rebellious ministers for his failure to secure victory in the French-hosted Rugby World Cup.
Seasoned politicians within the government also have little time for Laporte’s apparent frivolity and unashamed lack of vision as he is due to take up his new career, of which he said last week: “I have a new job. If I like it, I’ll stay. If not, I’ll go.” Laporte’s junior in the ministry, the veteran politician Roselyne Bachelot, wasted no time in responding: “For a secretary of state, it is not a question of like or dislike. One fulfils a role, not for one’s pleasure but for the good of the French people.”

To seasoned politicians of the French right, this rugby player-turned-coach who is the son of an electricity company employee, has nil political credentials. Bachelot, a survivor from the Jacques Chirac era, has worked tirelessly to prepare the first sports ministry summit, due to begin on Monday, on doping. “As far as we can tell, Laporte’s view is simply that doping is something that goes on in the other team,” said a ministry insider.

Even though Bachelot, who is due to retain the title of Sports Minister, has not admitted engineering the disgrace of Laporte, there is evidence to support suspicions. Laporte, from the south-western rugby heartland of the Tarn, had a successful national career as a scrum half for Gaillac and captained Begles-Bordeaux to Champion of France in 1991. Never capped as a player, he retired to coach and took charge of Les Bleues in 1999.

When he was coaching Stade Francais in the mid-Nineties Laporte began investing in businesses—campsites, a chain of restaurants and two casinos—and his path crossed that of Sarkozy’s circle of acquaintances. But they only met in 2003 during the future president’s holiday in Arcachon.

A tax investigation was opened into Laporte’s affairs in March but mysteriously left to slumber until this weekend, when it was revealed by the sports daily L’Equipe. The probe followed 16 searches of businesses linked to Laporte and his associates, including the Ole Bodega restaurant chain.

Tax investigators are also looking into property investments made in his and his wife’s name on the Caribbean island of Saint Martin and other offshore businesses in which he owns shares in Luxembourg, Belize and Panama. Laporte’s political enemies also point to a conflict of interests between his future ministerial role and his shares in two casinos—a controlled sector in France, which falls under the Interior Ministry.

His supporters say that he is a straight-talker whose rough-and-ready style is vexatious to slick Parisian politicians. Laporte has spoken freely of his â,¬700 000 annual earnings from sports sponsorship.

Indeed it may be that this style appeals the self-made President Sarkozy, whose recent mantra has been that “every Frenchman should feel free to wear his Rolex with pride”, rather than be ashamed, in the taboo-ridden Roman Catholic tradition, of displaying his well-earned bling. - Guardian Unlimited Â

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