Campaign funding scandal engulfs Sarkozy ally
France’s former interior minister Claude Guéant has found himself mired in scandal after becoming the focus of an investigation into allegations that Nicolas Sarkozy received illegal campaign financing during his 2007 run for the presidency.
Once one of the most prominent figures in French politics, former interior minister Claude Guéant has found himself mired in scandal over the past few weeks after becoming the focus of an investigation into allegations that Nicolas Sarkozy received illegal campaign funding from ex-Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi during his 2007 run for the presidency.
The allegations stem from an article by the French investigative website Mediapart in March 2012, which claimed Gaddafi’s government had contributed 50 million euros to Sarkozy’s successful 2007 presidential campaign as a candidate for the right-wing Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) party. A judicial probe was opened into the case on April 19, with investigators quickly turning their attention to the role played by Guéant, as one of Sarkozy’s closest advisors.
In the days that followed, it emerged that the former interior minister received a 500,000 euro wire from a foreign bank account in Malaysia, sparking widespread speculation. Guéant categorically denied the sum was linked in any way to funding from Libya’s former government, claiming instead that it was merely payment for the sale of two paintings by 18th-century Flemish artist Andries van Eertvelt to a foreign lawyer.
“I repeat that I never saw any trace of Libyan funding going to either an electoral campaign or to anyone in France, and I’ve never heard such a thing mentioned. This money comes from a mundane art deal,” Guéant told French radio RMC in an interview on April 30, insisting he could produce a bill of sale for the transaction.
Since then, the allegations against Guéant have snowballed as his career comes under increasingly close public scrutiny. His name appeared in headlines again at the end of April when it was revealed that he had given employees cash bonuses to the tune of 20,000-25,000 euros during his time in government. Guéant acknowledged the handouts, explaining in a series of interviews with the media that the practice had been in place long before he took office, and that he and Sarkozy brought an end to it.
With the public still reeling from this latest revelation, it then came out that Guéant was embroiled in yet another art-themed scandal. Ivorian newspaper Le Noveau Courrier published an article on May 10 alleging that Guéant had held on to a painting given to him by President Alassane Ouattara in 2011, which he was required to return to the Ivory Coast upon leaving office last year. According to French daily Le Monde, the work is now hanging in Guéant’s law firm, and can be seen in footage of an interview with the former minister filmed at his offices.
Most recently, however, French media reported on Tuesday that investigators had uncovered another 25,000 euros paid to Guéant’s account from Jordan, once again raising speculation that the sum may be related to the investigation into illegal campaign funding from Libya. The former interior minister has yet to respond publicly to the charges.
From prefect to the Elysée
Yet Guéant wasn’t always the wheeling-and-dealing, high-powered politician that the French media tend to portray today. He began his political career as a young man during the early 1970s as chief-of-staff for the regional prefecture in France’s western Finistère department. He then spent the next 30 years of his career gradually working his way up the ladder, earning respect from both sides of the political spectrum as a diligent and fair-minded individual.
The course of Guéant’s career changed in 2002, however, when he accepted a position as chief-of-staff to the country’s newly appointed interior minister, Nicolas Sarkozy. The move marked not only Guéant’s entry in the world of national politics but also the beginning of what would become years of close collaboration between the two men. As one of Sarkozy’s most devoted and steadfast allies, Guéant played a key role in helping elect him to the presidency in 2007, as campaign director. Once in the Elysée, Sarkozy named Guéant as his secretary general, before appointing him interior minister in 2011 during a cabinet reshuffle.
By the time Guéant took over the role as France’s “number-one cop,” he had garnered a reputation as a political hardliner whose views bordered on the far-right. He famously came under fire from the political left and civil rights groups in 2012 after stating that “not all civilisations are of equal value”. Yet despite his controversial comments, Guéant left office at the end of Sarkozy’s term with his record in government more or less intact.
Now, a year later, his reputation and political integrity – once two of his strongest attributes – have been called into question by the investigation into Sarkozy’s 2007 campaign funding. Guéant has been all but been abandoned by his former allies, who have taken their distance in the wake of the scandal. If found guilty of accepting illegal contributions on behalf of his former boss, the man who has spent the last 11 years of his life in the highest echelons of French government may find himself with few prospects for the future.