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'Mr Perfect' casts pall over Sarkozy's 'irreproachable Republic'

The storm engulfing a key ally of French President Nicolas Sarkozy has revived widespread cynicism in a country accustomed to politico-financial scandals, and undermined Sarkozy’s efforts to give his administration a cleaner image.

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President Nicolas Sarkozy was elected on a campaign promise to clean up politics and put an end to the murky dealings that had tarnished the image of the French state under his predecessors, François Mitterrand and Jacques Chirac.
 
In the run-up to the 2007 presidential election, the centre-right candidate famously offered voters the vision of an “irreproachable Republic”.
 
That pledge has turned sour after a ghastly summer during which the French president was forced to part with two junior ministers accused of embezzlement and fight off allegations that his ruling UMP party had been showered with illegal cash by L’Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt, France’s richest woman.
 
The allegations soon focused on a trusted Sarkozy ally, Labour Minister Eric Woerth, the man tasked with pushing through the president’s key pension reform.
 
Gradually, what had started off as the Bettencourt scandal became the Woerth scandal.
 
Not so perfect
 
The spectacular rise and fall of Woerth, a moderate and soft-spoken politician once described as "Mr Perfect" and billed by many as a future prime minister, has come to embody the demise of Sarkozy’s cleaner brand of politics.
 
Woerth has been dogged by accusations of a conflict of interest ever since he combined, in 2009, the positions of budget minister and UMP party treasurer.
 
As such, he has been accused of turning a blind eye to massive tax evasion by Bettencourt while also accepting illegal donations from the L’Oreal heiress on behalf of the UMP party.
 
His predicament got worse when it emerged that he had endorsed a request for a Legion d’honneur, France’s highest state decoration, for his wife’s employer and Bettencourt wealth manager Patrice de Maistre.
 
After repeated denials, Woerth was forced on Thursday to admit he had written a letter in 2007 to Sarkozy, who was then interior minister, in support of de Maistre’s application; only to then claim he had “never lied about anything to anyone”.
 
The bunker strategy
 
Investigations into the sprawling Bettencourt-Woerth scandal – entrusted to Nanterre prosecutor Philippe Courroye, described by critics as being too close to the French president – have yet to lead to any charges against the minister, who has strenuously denied any wrongdoing.
 
Despite widespread and persistent calls for Woerth’s resignation, Sarkozy and his government have remained steadfast in their support of the beleaguered labour minister, in what has been described by some as the “bunker strategy”.
 
The French president’s risky gamble – to hold on to Woerth until the pension battle is fought and won – may yet backfire. Trade unions have already warned that, under the current climate of suspicion, negotiations with the labour minister would not be possible.
With the government bracing itself for a nationwide strike on Sept. 7 and heated talks with unions thereafter, Mr Perfect is looking less like an asset and more like a liability.
 
According to Stéphane Rozes, a political analyst at Paris-based Conseil, analyses et stratégies (CAP), the Woerth affair has turned the whole relationship between minister and policy on its head.
 
“In this case, the minister is no longer serving a reform, but rather it is the reform that is serving the minister,” he said in an interview with FRANCE24. As a result, “instead of helping pass the reform, the minister is actually weakening it.”
 
Tous pourris
 
“Clearly, this is a far cry from the ‘irreproachable Republic’ Sarkozy had promised during his election campaign,” says Rozès.
 
The scandal has further damaged France’s unpopular government, with polls suggesting that public distrust of the political establishment is on the rise.
 
According to a survey carried out in July by Viavoice for French daily Libération, 60% of the French thought their politicians were corrupt.
 
The all-too-familiar view that politicians are “tous pourris” (all rotten) is still widely held.
 
Still, Rozès is not convinced that corruption in French politics is on the upturn. “What's new”, he said, “is that we have a segment of the media – particularly the online media – that won't let itself be silenced when it comes to investigating corruption.”

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