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PARIS — For a former French president to be sentenced to jail may be regarded as a misfortune. For the same ex-president to go on trial on different corruption charges 11 weeks later looks like a brutal commentary on the state of French politics.
Nicolas Sarkozy will appear in court in Paris Thursday to face accusations that he and his party created a complex system of fake bills to hide epic overspending on his failed re-election campaign in 2012.
Several other allegations of wrongdoing against Sarkozy remain under investigation. He contests all the accusations and has appealed against the 12-month prison sentence that he received on March 1 for, in effect, trying to bribe a judge for inside information on another case against him.
Whatever the rights and wrongs of the Sarkozy prosecutions, Thursday’s trial fits a miserable French pattern of law-breaking to achieve, or retain, high office which goes back for four decades or more.
The last two presidents from the center right, Sarkozy and Jacques Chirac, were both convicted of corruption after they left the Elysée. Five of the last six French center-right prime ministers have faced criminal charges of various kinds. Two, Edouard Balladur and Dominique de Villepin, were acquitted. Three, including Chirac, were found guilty.
Alain Juppé (prime minister from 1995-1997) was convicted in 2004 for helping Chirac to misappropriate Paris taxpayers’ cash to run their political party in the 1980s and 1990s. François Fillon (PM 2007-2012) was convicted last year of falsely claiming a parliamentary salary for his wife.
The wrongdoing is not confined to the center right (although their record suggests they have been more active, or careless, than other political families).
In the late 1980s, senior officials from the French Socialist Party were convicted of extorting money for party finances for public contracts. Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s hard-left France Unbowed is under investigation for allegedly claiming money for “fake jobs” in the European Parliament.
The far-right leader, Marine Le Pen, likes to accuse other parties of being tous pourri (all rotten). Yet since 2017, she has been under formal investigation for the alleged embezzlement of €6.8 million in EU funds. Both Mélenchon and Le Pen dismiss the investigations as politically motivated.
A police report, leaked at the weekend to the Journal du Dimanche, said police had found damning evidence that Le Pen was at the center of a “fraudulent” system for staffing her party in Paris with officials paid to be European Parliament assistants in Brussels and Strasbourg.
Not money, but power
So how corrupt is French politics?
There is a common thread in this tangled pattern of wrongdoing and especially the persistent criminality of the law-and-order-preaching French center right: None of the cases are about personal enrichment, except the Fillon case. They are about power and ambition.
This is not new. Nor is it confined to France. For decades, such activities remained unexposed by the French press and un-investigated by the criminal justice system.
Charles de Gaulle is known to have financed his party and his campaigns with funds from “Françafrique,” the former French colonies in Africa. Georges Pompidou’s presidency (1969-1974) was tarred by real estate scandals.
Since then, three laws have been passed to regulate campaign spending and to provide partial state refunds for election campaigns. All flavors and stripes of French politics (other than Emmanuel Macon’s “new center”) have been found guilty of trying to evade these rules — but none more so than the center right.
Apart from party and campaign financing scams, there is little evidence of systematic, venal corruption in modern French politics — probably much less so than in the past. That, however, is not what the public thinks.
Bruno Jeanbart, vice president of the Opinionway polling organization, said: “According to our polling, around 75 percent of French people believe that politics is corrupt. They don’t make much distinction between party fundraising and personal enrichment.”
Jeanbart said financial scandals seldom influence voters’ choices directly. The Fillon scandal during the 2017 presidential campaign was an exception.
But he said a generalized sense of rottenness has helped to erode support for the once-dominant French political families of the center right and center left. Populist parties of far right and hard left seem relatively immune — so far.
In the case of the center right, the illegal cash-raising activities of recent decades have had another devastating impact — on personal relations within an always fractious political family.
In the four-week-long “Bygmalion” trial starting Thursday, Sarkozy is accused of seeking to buy a second term of office in 2012 by spending at least €42.8 million on his second-round presidential campaign, almost double the legal limit of €22.5 million.
The over-spending was reportedly concealed (for a time) by the use of fake bills from friendly or shell companies (including one called Bygmalion). The existence of the system is scarcely in dispute.
The accusations and counter-accusations of responsibility within Les Républicains (formerly the UMP and also incorporating the Gaullists and others) continue to this day. This residue of hatred between former friends and colleagues has made the choice of a single center-right presidential candidate for next year’s election difficult and maybe impossible.
Personal animosities also help to explain the screaming civil war that broke out within Les Républicains this month when Macron’s centrist party engineered a pact with the center right in the Nice-Cannes-Marseilles area before regional elections. Macron’s people knew that the pact would have such an effect. They made a deliberate attempt to shatter a dysfunctional party, and came close to success.
That poisonous row also reflects a fundamental split in the French center right, between its liberal-European and nationalist-authoritarian wings. This division was concealed for years by strongish leaders like Chirac and Sarkozy. To do so, they had to raise the money to spend big — first for the right to dominate their political family and then for the right to govern.
Now Macron and Le Pen occupy two big chunks of the political real estate once occupied by De Gaulle, Chirac and Sarkozy. Nothing suggests that is likely to change soon.
The ideological split in the center right is deep; personal hatred born of past scandals burn brightly; the methods of raising campaign cash have never been so closely watched.
The latest trial is that of 14 officials and politicians, including a former president of the Republic. It may also become an inquest into the death of an era in French politics.