/ 3 July 2014

You’re nicked, Sarkozy

France's former president
France's former president

France had spent the night celebrating its qualification to the World Cup’s quarterfinals. Then it woke up to the news that its former president, Nicolas Sarkozy, had been taken into police custody and was facing criminal charges.

In the course of a few hours, France went from thrill to chill. It is the first time since 1958 that a former French president has been taken into police custody. He is, however, not the first to face a judge. His mentor in politics, Jacques Chirac, was given a two-year suspended prison sentence for embezzlement.

On learning the news, my first reaction was: Which of the six Sarkozy-related scandals is it this time?

We need a little recap here. You may remember l’affaire Bettencourt. Sarkozy was under investigation for allegedly taking advantage of the elderly and mentally fragile L’Oreal heiress in the financing of his 2007 presidential campaign.

Charges were dropped eight months ago and Sarkozy didn’t have to face a trial, leaving him free to run for the presidency in 2017.

At the same time, French magistrates were also investigating allegations that Colonel Muammar Gaddafi had paid €50-million into Sarkozy’s 2007 campaign. During this investigation, French magistrates wire-tapped conversations between Sarkozy and his lawyer and made “unsettling” discoveries.

To cut a long story short, Sarkozy is alleged to have built a network of informants within the judiciary and the court of cassation who kept him and his lawyers informed of the progress of the Bettencourt investigations and every other sensitive dossier he might be linked to.

The former president and his lawyer, who appeared to know that their phones were bugged by the investigative judges, resorted to buying pre-paid cellphones under fake names. As a result, Sarkozy, his lawyer and two judges from the court of cassation were taken into police custody for questioning on Monday and Tuesday and have now been put under investigation for “abuse of power”.

Sarkozy may well end up being released. But, if nothing else, this new episode is shedding more light on “le systeme Sarkozy”. Here is a president who never hesitated to call high civil servants in order to grill them and obtain confidential information.

The current investigation, led by two top female magistrates, Patricia Simon and Claire Thepaut, will need to prove in no uncertain terms whether such practice is illegal or simply part of the bullying tactics of people in power that have been tolerated so far. Sarkozy vehemently denies any wrongdoing.

As for his political future, that is another matter. If he had been hoping to present himself as France’s next saviour, he may have to think again. Still in French politics, three years (until the next presidential election) is an eternity. – Guardian News & Media 2014