Nicolas Sarkozy corruption probe a European trend

In Europe, hunting politicians — the bigger the better — by the forces of the law has become a ruthless blood sport. Nicolas Sarkozy, the former French president, is just the latest to be cornered

By no means the first French, or European, leader to face a prosecutor's stern visage

A clearly angered, former French president Nicolas Sarkozy leaves his Paris residence on Wednesday for 15 hours of formal investigation at a police station. (Gonzalo Fuentes / Reuters)

The pursuit of senators by the Mounties has shocked, startled or simply amused Canadians in recent months. But in the big game stakes of world politics, this is no more than squirrel shooting.

In Europe, hunting politicians — the bigger the better — by the forces of the law has become a ruthless blood sport. The latest to be cornered is Nicolas Sarkozy, until two years ago the president of France.

Now he is a man who has spent 15 hours in police custody before appearing before investigating magistrates who will be continuing their inquiry.

The potential charges relate to influence peddling, corrupting officials and benefiting from government secrets. If charged and convicted, he could face up to 10 years in prison. He is also being investigated in at least five other "affairs," as the French call scandals, including allegations about shady election financing and arms sales.

Sarkozy is small and feisty. He walked out of custody and directly into a television studio snarling like a wounded animal. The detention was "grotesque," he said, and he was shocked to find himself dragged into police custody.

But the ex-president was just warming up. The investigating magistrates were being used as a "political instrument" by his enemies in power not just to destroy him but to humiliate him as well.

For good measure he called the Socialist prime minister and minister of justice liars.

The victim card

Sarkozy as victim of a judicial-political conspiracy? It immediately called to mind another leader in a neighbouring country — Silvio Berlusconi — who perfected that performance when hauled, again and again, before the courts.

For 20 years, nine of them as Italy's prime minister, he dodged the law, shouting that he was a victim, but also tweaking the laws when he ran the country to give himself added protection.

In the end, however, he lost power and he lost in court. His conviction for tax fraud was upheld by Italy's Supreme Court this spring, and his prison sentence was commuted, in view of his age, to one year of community service with the elderly.

Former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi leaves the Sacred Family Foundation, a residence for the elderly on the outskirts of Milan, in May, when he began a year of community service as part of his sentence for tax fraud. (Reuters)

Both men's complaints that they have been singled out for special punitive treatment ring a little hollow.

In Italy, the judges pursued other prime ministers of the right and the left through the courts for years.

Christian Democrat Giulio Andreotti, who was prime minister a record seven times, was actually convicted of having aided the Mafia. (The conviction was overturned on appeal and he died still a senator-for-life.)

Socialist Bettino Craxi fled the judiciary into exile in Tunisia where he died sitting on his ill-gotten bribes. He was convicted in absentia and sentenced to 27 years in prison.

The story is similar in France. Former president Jacques Chirac, a man of the right, like Sarkozy, is a felon, convicted after he left office, as is one of his former prime ministers, Alain Juppé.

Both men were found guilty of illegal political financing when Chirac was mayor of Paris. Chirac's prison sentence was commuted in view of his age.

A second Chirac prime minister, Edouard Balladur, is being investigated for his possible role in a massive kickback scheme related to the sale of French warships to Pakistan.

Big beasts on the French left have also spent time in custody.

The biggest of these is DSK, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, once France's finance minister, later the head of the International Monetary Fund and the man widely tipped to run for president and beat Sarkozy in 2012.

Then he was arrested and charged with sexual aggression against a hotel maid in New York.

The charges were dropped. But French prosecutors still pursued him, and he faces trial on charges of aggravated pimping for his role in a French sex ring involving prostitutes.

Then there is the Socialist minister of the budget, in charge in hunting down tax cheaters.

Jerome Cahuzac was forced to resign last year when it was discovered he was one himself, with more than $1 million in undeclared secret accounts offshore. He faces possible charges of tax fraud.

A common thread

This big game hunting is not just a Latin country phenomenon.

In 2012 the president of Germany (a largely ceremonial position), Christian Wulff, resigned and was later hauled into court on charges of accepting bribes. He was acquitted.

This being Germany, the amount of the bribe for which he was tried was a mere $1,013.

On his acquittal, Wulff promptly published a book and declared that he, too, was a victim. The conspiracy against him was between the judiciary and the media, which, he said, "kept passing the ball back and forth."

One thread running through many of these judicial investigations is illegal political financing.

Former German chancellor Helmut Kohl, the architect of German reunification, arrives for the unveiling of a bust in his honour in Berlin in June 2013. A decade earlier he admitted to accepting millions in secret funds for his Christian Democratic Union party during his decades in power, and paid two substantial fines to avoid a trial. (Thomas Peter / Reuters)

Perhaps the biggest case of this type also involved the biggest beast of all in Europe. Thirteen years ago the former German chancellor Helmut Kohl admitted he had taken millions in illegal donations, but refused to give any details.

He had given his word to his donors to keep their names secret. His honour was at stake.

He dared the courts to pursue him. Faced with trying the man who had unified Germany, they ducked the challenge, and he paid a fine instead to make the court case go away.

French prosecutors, however, may not duck the challenge when it comes to Sarkozy.

France was once the country of "the envelopes," special funds worth millions at the disposal of the president, the prime minister and cabinet ministers every month to be distributed as they saw fit.

Much of this money went to top up the incomes of politicians and their aides. The rest financed political parties.

These envelopes were abolished a dozen years ago. The French parliament voted ministers a 70 per cent pay increase to compensate them for their loss of under-the-table untaxed income.

But the culture of impunity, the idea that there was one law for ordinary taxpayers and another for their leaders, persists. And many of France's ferocious investigating magistrates, it seems, want to stamp it out.

Sarkozy is understandably furious because he wants to run again for the presidency. If the case went to court, it would sink his chances.

But consider his main rival on the right — Alain Juppé, the mayor of Bordeaux.

Yes, the same Juppé who was convicted and given a suspended sentence for illegal political financing.

Given the abysmal poll ratings of France's current president, François Hollande, Juppé could well win if he gained the nomination in the absence of Sarkozy.

To restate the obvious, these are not squirrels, but lions — mangy, wounded and snarling, but determined beasts all the same. Only a killer shot will stop them.

About the Author

Don Murray

Eye on Europe

A well-travelled former CBC reporter and documentary maker, Don Murray is a freelance writer and translator based in London and Paris.


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