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France’s scandal-hit conservatives hold crisis meeting

Photo: AFP

Leaders of France’s main opposition UMP party were gathering in Paris on Tuesday, a day after stunning revelations about potentially illegal campaign funding emerged, with many wondering if party boss Jean-François Copé would be forced to step down.

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The top-level meeting of the conservative Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) was initially organised to discuss its humiliating defeat in Sunday’s European elections to France’s far-right National Front party.

The UMP, the party of former president Nicolas Sarkozy, claimed 20.8 percent of ballots in the EU parliamentary poll. It beat out the ruling Socialist Party (PS) of President François Hollande, but suffered its first-ever loss to the surging FN, which garnered the most votes in the election.

However, a shocking disclosure on Monday by Sarkozy’s former deputy campaign director put an alarming new spin on the agenda.

Jérôme Lavrilleux admitted on live television that invoices for Sarkozy’s campaign were passed off as invoices for UMP party conferences in order to skirt campaign finance laws.

A flustered Lavrilleux claimed that the falsified invoices amounted to “anomalies” but said that no one had financially benefitted from the arrangement. Sarkozy, whose presidential campaign was previously cited by judges for passing the spending limit, lost to Hollande in 2012.

Hours before Lavrilleux’s dramatic confession, a lawyer for the public relations firm Bygmalion – the company that issued the invoices – told a press conference essentially the same story. He said the UMP had pressured Bygmalion to falsify the invoices or risk not getting paid.

At the same time, French anti-corruption police seized documents at the UMP’s headquarters in Paris, at Bygmalion’s offices, and at Génération France, a thinktank linked to UMP party chief Jean-François Copé.

More bad news for Sarkozy

Lavrilleux claimed that he never spoke to Sarkozy or Copé about the invoices, but many are wondering if either of them will walk away from this latest money scandal unscathed.

The constitutional court’s ruling in July 2013 that Sarkozy had surpassed campaign spending limits, combined with the UMP’s heavy defeat in the 2012 legislative elections, plunged the party into debt.

The ruling spurred Sarkozy to launch an emergency fund drive in September 2013 – dubbed “le Sarkothon” – that collected more than 10 million euros in donations from party members and sympathisers.

Copé has said that, as UMP chief, he had been unaware the party was overcharged by Bygmalion for events that did not take place, after French weeklies Le Point and L’Express broke the story. He said he had trusted others to do their job correctly.

But it will be difficult for Copé to claim ignorance or disassociate himself from Bygmalion, which was founded by two of his close friends.

Fillon to the rescue?

The conservative UMP has also been plagued by political infighting, amid tantalising speculation about who will be the party’s nominee in France’s 2017 presidential poll.

Former Prime Minister François Fillon has made no secrecy of his desire to run, even if his former boss, Sarkozy, returns from political retirement to reclaim his old job.

Fillon bemoaned the party’s “damaged credibility and honour” following its historic defeat to the National Front on Sunday, a comment many considered a well placed jab at in-party rival Copé.

As Copé emerges from the meeting on Tuesday, amid continuing investigations into the UMP’s questionable accounting practices, he may struggle to explain himself to voters.

Former PM Fillon, as well as former prime minister and foreign minister Alain Juppé (another potential presidential nominee), may be set to reap the windfall of the so-called Bygmalion scandal.

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