Former President Nicolas Sarkozy has been hauled in for questioning, and France is suddenly in uncharted territory. There have been plenty of allegations made in the past against Presidents and former Presidents, plenty of investigations and judicial inquiries. Jacques Chirac has consistently been linked to bribery allegations when Mayor of Paris; Valerie Giscard D’Estaing never shook of allegations of having taken diamonds from Emperor Bokassa of the Central African Republic; Francois Mitterand was alleged to have kept a mistress and love-child a public expense for years.
But for a former President to be held in this way? In a non-descript interior ministry building for 24 hours at least, while being subjected to hostile questioning by prosecutors? Mais Non! Never! They may have removed their King’s head back in 1793, but Presidents - in and out of office - have been treated as near-royalty ever since.
The story is very complicated, but bear with me because it’s a good tale:
Nicolas Sarkozy has been dogged for years by allegations that his election campaign in 2007 was secretly funded by Libya’s Col Gadaffi, the so-called ‘Betancourt affair’. Getting nowhere, investigators started tapping the phones of Sarkozy’s close associates, then - amazingly - Sarkozy’s own phone. Before long they got wind of the fact that Sarkozy and his personal lawyer were talking to each other on disposable phones, registered in false names. So they tapped them too.
This, according to the leading French newspaper Le Monde, was a lot more interesting. Listening in, they heard nothing incriminating about the main investigation itself, nothing tying the former President to Libyan money, but they found he was amazingly well-informed about what the investigators were up to. It appeared that a very well-placed source was leaking their every move.
The finger of suspicion pointed to a very senior judge who had been friends with Sarkozy’s personal lawyer for 20 years. It’s alleged that, in return, the judge had been promised a lucrative and congenial position in Monaco. Both judge and lawyer are also now being held for questioning on the same allegation of ‘influence peddling’.
All of this would matter much less were it not for the fact that Sarkozy remains the only serious figure on the (respectable) right of French politics, and is thought to have been close to announcing a return to frontline politics in time for the 2019 Presidential election. Hence claims from the Sarkozy camp that today’s moves against their man are politically motivated.
If Sarkozy is driven from the political scene, and President Hollande remains as discredited as he is today, there will be only one winner from all this: the woman who today was leading her newly elected MEPs to take their seats at the European Parliament in Strasbourg. Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right Front National.