FRANCE

Sarkozy’s political ambitions dim amid corruption allegations

AFP

Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy’s hopes of running for a second term in 2017 took a serious blow Wednesday after he was placed once again under formal investigation, this time for alleged corruption of court officials.

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The former centre-right leader has been quietly laying the ground for a comeback to power amid widespread dissatisfaction with Socialist President François Hollande, a resurgent far-right National Front (FN) and disarray within his own UMP party.

The UMP is due to choose its next leader in 2016, and Sarkozy said last week he was “in a period of reflection” as to his candidacy.

And despite his extremely negative image on the left of the political spectrum, polls give him an easy lead over Hollande, the least popular president in recent French history, if he were to present himself as candidate in 2017.

Sarkozy’s legal woes

But Sarkozy’s seemingly endless legal woes may prove fatal.

The 59-year-old former president has faced virtually non-stop legal battles since he left office, including a number of inquiries into wrongdoings.

The current case for which he has been placed under formal investigation – a situation that nearly always ends in a trial – relates to allegations that he used his influence to get illegal insider information on another investigation into funding irregularities in his 2007 election campaign.

Specifically, investigators want to establish whether Sarkozy tried to get a judge promoted to the bench in Monaco in exchange for illegal insider information on that inquiry.

The investigation made use of phone-taps, unprecedented in an official investigation of a former president. If Sarkozy is convicted of corrupting the official, he could face up to ten years in prison.

Innocent until proven guilty?

On Wednesday, many of Sarkozy’s political supporters -- and detractors -- appeared to call for calm, saying that justice should be allowed to run its course.

Former prime minister and foreign minister under Sarkozy Alain Juppé tweeted: “Thinking of my friend Nicolas Sarkozy, innocent until proven guilty. His defence will prove his innocence. I hope.”

Sarkozy’s former agriculture minister Bruno Le Maire told RTL radio that he also was “supportive of his friend”.

“We have to wait for justice to take its course,” he added. “But [Sarkozy] remains free to make his own political decisions. If he wants to present himself as president of the UMP, it is entirely up to him.”

Other supporters took a more bellicose stand. Mayor of Nice and UMP heavyweight Christian Estrosi told France Info radio that he “questioned the impartiality of the judges” and accused Hollande’s government of whipping up “an atmosphere of hate” against Sarkozy.

“Was it really necessary to keep him in custody all night?” he asked, insinuating that the investigation was doing everything possible to embarrass Sarkozy in the public eye.

Socialist Prime Minister Manuel Valls (seen by many as a possible Socialist presidential candidate) meanwhile called Sarkozy’s situation “extremely serious” – but insisted that the inquiry was “independent” from political pressures.

He told BFM TV that “no one is above the law”, but that “just like anyone else, Sarkozy is innocent until proven guilty”.

‘Not the man for the job’

Outside France, a number of respected newspapers speculated that the week’s events could be the final straw in Sarkozy’s hopes to make a political comeback.

The New York Times on Tuesday said the investigation could prove "devastating" to his ambitions. 

Underlining the seriousness of the situation, the newspaper pointed out that Sarkozy was “the first former president in the country’s history to be detained and questioned in police custody”, as well as the “first former leader to have his phone tapped in an official investigation”.

Britain's Financial Times, meanwhile, argued that “even assuming he can clear his name, Mr Sarkozy is not the man for the job” of restoring France to political and economic stability.

“There is no country in Europe that today suffers so sorely from the absence of mainstream political leadership,” the newspaper said in an editorial titled "The waning appeal of Nicolas Sarkozy".

“Nor is there one where the political prospects for the far right are quite as alarming. France urgently needs new political leaders who, unlike Mr Sarkozy, offer a vision for the nation that is fresh, bold and untainted by the past. The centre-right should look to other, less flawed figures as a future presidential candidate."

Sarkozy is due to comment on the investigation at 8pm Paris time (GMT+2) on Europe1 radio and TF1 TV.

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