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PARIS – The sentencing of a former French president to prison can be seen as a calamity. The fact that the same ex-president was brought to justice 11 weeks later on various corruption charges seems to be a brutal comment on the state of French politics.
Nicolas Sarkozy will appear in court in Paris on Thursday to counter allegations that he and his party created a complex system of fake bills to hide the epic expenses for his failed 2012 re-election campaign.
Several other allegations of wrongdoing against Sarkozy are still under investigation. He denies all allegations and has appealed the 12-month sentence he received on March 1 for actually trying to bribe a judge for inside information on another case against him.
Whatever the rights and wrongs of the Sarkozy prosecution, Thursday’s trial follows a miserable French pattern of breaking the law to attain or maintain high office that goes back four decades or more.
The last two presidents from the right, Sarkozy and Jacques Chirac, were both convicted of corruption after leaving the Elysee. Five of the last six French center-right prime ministers have been prosecuted. Two, Edouard Balladur and Dominique de Villepin, were acquitted. Three, including Chirac, were found guilty.
Alain Juppé (1995-1997 Prime Minister) was convicted in 2004 for helping Chirac misuse Paris taxpayers’ money to run their political party in the 1980s and 1990s. François Fillon (PM 2007-2012) was convicted last year for falsely demanding a parliamentary salary for his wife.
The wrongdoing is not limited to the center-right (although their records suggest they were more active or negligent than other political families).
In the late 1980s, high-ranking officials of the French Socialist Party were convicted of extorting money for party finances for public contracts. Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s die-hard France Unbowed is under investigation for allegedly demanding money for “wrong jobs” in the European Parliament.
Far right leader Marine Le Pen likes to accuse other parties of being tous pourri (everything lazy). However, since 2017 it has been formally investigated for alleged misappropriation of EU funds amounting to EUR 6.8 million. Both Mélenchon and Le Pen reject the investigation as politically motivated.
A police report leaked to the Journal du Dimanche over the weekend said police had found damn evidence that Le Pen was at the center of a “fraudulent” system for staffing her party in Paris with officials acting as assistants the European Parliament in Brussels and Europe were paid Strasbourg.
How corrupt is French politics?
There is a common thread in this tangled pattern of wrongdoing, and in particular the ongoing crime of French law, which preaches law and order: none of the cases are about personal gain, except for the Fillon case. It’s about power and ambition.
That’s not new. It’s not limited to France either. For decades, such activities remained open to the French press and were not investigated by the criminal justice system.
It is known that Charles de Gaulle financed his party and his campaigns with funds from “Françafrique”, the former French colonies in Africa. The presidency of Georges Pompidou (1969-1974) was marked by real estate scandals.
Since then, three laws have been passed to regulate campaign expenses and, in some cases, to provide government reimbursements for campaigns. All the flavors and stripes of French politics (except for Emmanuel Macon’s “new center”) have been found guilty of trying to evade these rules – but no more than the center on the right.
Aside from fraud in party funding and campaigning, there is little evidence of systematic corruption in modern French politics, probably much less than in the past. However, that’s not what the public thinks.
Bruno Jeanbart, vice president of the polling organization Opinionway, said: “According to our survey, around 75 percent of French people believe that politics is corrupt. They don’t make much of a difference between party fundraising and personal enrichment. “
Jeanbart said financial scandals rarely have a direct impact on voters’ voting decisions. The Fillon scandal during the 2017 presidential campaign was an exception.
But he said a general feeling of putrefaction helped undermine support for the once dominant French center-right and center-left political families. Populist parties on the far right and far left seem to be relatively immune so far.
In the case of the center-right, the illegal fundraising activities of the past few decades have had another devastating impact – on personal relationships within an increasingly troubled political family.
In the four-week “Bygmalion” trial, which begins Thursday, Sarkozy is accused of buying a second term in 2012 by spending at least 42.8 million euros on his presidential campaign in the second round, which is almost twice the legal limit of euros 22.5 million.
The overspending was reportedly (intermittently) concealed through the use of fake invoices from friends or shell companies (including one called Bygmalion). The existence of the system is hardly disputed.
The allegations and counter-allegations of responsibility within Les Républicains (formerly UMP and also including the Gaullists and others) continue to this day. This remnant of hatred between former friends and colleagues has made choosing a single center-right presidential candidate for next year’s elections difficult and possibly impossible.
Personal hostilities also help explain the screaming civil war that erupted in Les Républicains this month when Macron’s centrist party made a pact with the center right in the Nice-Cannes-Marseille region ahead of the regional elections. Macron’s people knew the pact would have such an impact. They made a deliberate attempt to crush a dysfunctional party and came close to success.
This venomous dispute also reflects a fundamental split in the French center-right between its liberal-European and nationalist-authoritarian wings. This split has been hidden for years by strong leaders like Chirac and Sarkozy. To do this, they had to collect the money to spend a lot – first for the right to dominate their political family and then for the right to govern.
Now Macron and Le Pen occupy two large sections of the political real estate that was once occupied by De Gaulle, Chirac and Sarkozy. There is nothing to suggest that this will change anytime soon.
The ideological split in the middle right is deep; personal hatred born of past scandals burns brightly; The methods of raising campaign funds have never been watched so closely.
The latest trial affects 14 officials and politicians, including a former president of the republic. It could also be an investigation into the death of an era in French politics.