Sarkozy’s Houdini Act

Is France's embittered former president trying to hide from prosecution or quietly laying the groundwork for a big comeback?


PARIS – When Nicolas Sarkozy was battling his way toward the presidency in 2007, he often seemed like the Energizer Bunny of French politics: frenetic, relentless, and troublingly ubiquitous. Like that deranged, effervescent, pink rabbit, he broke through barriers and intruded into the darnedest places.

Long before he took office in the Élysée Palace, he had manufactured an image based on tough talk and hard-charging actions that could fill kiosks full of newsweekly covers and thus inspire the relentless dedication of legions of newspaper correspondents. (When he was a government minister under President Jacques Chirac, he would actually brag about his impact on magazine sales and television ratings.) The Sarko Show devolved into a national soap opera: His wife was his chief of staff, then left him for another man, but came back in time for his election to the presidency. Soon after, he gave France its first presidential divorce, speed-wooed former supermodel Carla Bruni, and provided the country with a rare presidential wedding and, better yet, its first presidential birth. In the end, it was hard to tell whether they were France’s Camelot, with Bruni as Jackie Kennedy, or its political Brangelina. Sarkozy’s jumpy voice seemed to play in a loop for years, accompanying people’s café and croissants over the morning radio, or barging in on family dinners during prime-time news broadcasts.

The country was so overwhelmed by his omnipresence (the media actually dubbed him the "omni-president") that it began to suffer from what might be called Sarkozia — a mental disorder defined by the fraught disorientation of spending so much time around a politician who relishes destabilizing others.

And then, in little more than the time that it took for the electorate to reject him in May, Sarkozy was gone. The man who drove the French media insane for much of the last decade has tried to disappear like Houdini.

In the less than two months since the end of his presidency, France’s most notorious media-hound has gone silent. There have been no formal speeches and no comments on Europe’s tenuous economic situation (even as his former government has been blamed for a wide array of related problems). He has spent much of his time vacationing overseas, first in Morocco and more recently in Quebec. France hasn’t been entirely Sarko-free, but close. He made a silent and stately appearance at a memorial ceremony for four French soldiers who were killed in Afghanistan. His replacement, François Hollande, invited Sarkozy, partly out of respect but perhaps also to highlight who is really responsible for the unpopular war. But it was Hollande who gave the eulogy, as Sarkozy watched like a respectful scarecrow in the breeze. Or a ghost.

Is the notoriously competitive, insecure, and neurotic Frenchman feeling sorry for himself after failing to win reelection? Undoubtedly. Is the disappearing act a premeditated strategy? The answer to that question came when his 25-year-old son, Jean, visited the presidential palace in the waning days of his father’s presidency — just prior to Hollande’s inauguration — to seek his father’s benediction. Jean Sarkozy planned to run for a conservative seat in Parliament in June.

Sarkozy père, ever the political calculator, nixed the idea of his son carrying the family’s political torch forward. "Bad idea," Nicolas told Jean, according to a brief report of the encounter published in the French daily Le Parisien. "The Sarkozys must make themselves forgotten, and they will make themselves forgotten."

The former president wants to send a Nixonian message: France no longer has Nicolas Sarkozy to kick around anymore. The subtext: Perhaps absence will make the heart grow fonder.

An object of as much public fascination as Sarkozy is can never completely escape the limelight, though. Paparazzi crews have repeatedly tracked the former president down on his regular jogs. For years, he harvested such moments for their dynamic communications impact. But on one recent occasion, which was broadcast on French television, the dejected former president asked his media stalkers if they ever planned to leave him alone.

Plenty of French people would be glad to oblige. Much of the country just wants to move on from the Sarkozy years, but if the Energizer Bunny presidency is over, the French can be forgiven for feeling like that rascal rabbit has left an improbably long trail of fecal pellets behind him. That sense has been growing since his presidential immunity from prosecution lapsed on June 16, a month after he left the presidential palace. French courts have a notable tradition of engaging in lengthy legal pursuit of former presidents in corruption cases, including Sarkozy’s predecessor, Chirac, who was found guilty of corruption in December of last year.

Sarkozy’s new chief antagonist may be Judge Jean-Michel Gentil, who is in the midst of a multiyear investigation that started out looking into whether people around the aging billionaire heiress Liliane Bettencourt, of the L’Oréal empire, manipulated the dementia-stricken octogenarian for their own financial gain and to buy political influence from Sarkozy’s political party. Charges have already been filed against 11 people, including Bettencourt’s former money manager, who spent 88 days in preliminary detention as the investigating judge sought to figure out what he did with a total of about $7 million of the old lady’s money.

In an offshoot of that investigation, Gentil, backed by police investigators, carried out a series of raids on Tuesday, July 3, on Sarkozy’s office, the home owned by Carla Bruni-Sarkozy where the couple live in the posh 16th arrondissement, and a law firm in which Sarkozy is a partner.

The judge is particularly focused on what was done with $1 million that was withdrawn from Bettencourt’s Swiss bank accounts on two separate occasions. The initial withdrawal came on February 5, 2007, days before Bettencourt’s money manager met with Éric Woerth, then the treasurer of Sarkozy’s first presidential campaign. Bettencourt’s former accountant (who is not the same person as her money manager) has told investigators that she gave $185,000 to Woerth. (Political donations in France are limited to $5,660 per person during campaigns.) The second withdrawal came days into the brief two-week runoff campaign later that year. Woerth, who went on to become Sarkozy’s minister of budget, and then of labor, resigned as the burgeoning scandal targeted him. He insists that he was the victim of a politicized witch-hunt whose real target was President Sarkozy. (His case is ongoing.)

Several of Bettencourt’s former employees have also asserted that Sarkozy quietly dropped by the billionaire’s mansion in person on at least two occasions, in February and in April of 2007, to pick up cash.

Days after moving out of the presidential palace in May, citizen Sarkozy’s attorney sent the former president’s scheduling journal to the judge to show that he only made a brief "courtesy call" to Bettencourt on Feb. 24, 2007. The lawyer insists that the booklet proved that Sarkozy could not have been present on the specific days mentioned by Bettencourt’s former employees — as though a politician would naturally leave a paper trail in his datebook if he was clearly breaking finance law during a political campaign.

An array of other court cases is moving forward that could eventually trip up the former Energizer Bunny. One investigation aims to figure out who ordered French intelligence services to spy on journalist Gérard Davet, at the respected daily Le Monde, in an attempt to ascertain who his sources were in 2010 on a particularly sensitive story. Davet was writing about the Bettencourt saga and her entourage’s alleged interactions with Woerth (then a prominent minister under Sarkozy). Le Monde obtained copies of letters written from spy-service figures loyal to President Sarkozy, to Davet’s cell-phone provider, in order to obtain the reporter’s call records.

A more complex, and sinister, case involves an investigation into a complex kickbacks scheme, known as the Karachi Affair, that may have helped fund the presidential candidacy of Édouard Balladur, Sarkozy’s political mentor, in the mid-1990s.

Yet another case is moving forward on Sarkozy’s own initiation. He is suing the French investigative website Mediapart over its publication during the recent presidential campaign of a document suggesting that Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi agreed to provide $62.5 million to Sarkozy’s successful 2007 presidential campaign. Sarkozy’s lawyers argue that the document, provided by a former Libyan diplomat, is obviously false and that Mediapart knew as much.

Beyond the many court cases, plenty of politicians — on the new ruling left and on the opposition right — have a clear interest in highlighting Sarkozy’s leadership failings. The current French government, which has promised to hack $50 billion from France’s budget deficit over the next two years, suggests that the Energizer President sapped the country’s coffers with tax cuts for well-connected corporations and his rich supporters (like Bettencourt) at the very moment when France should have been leveling out the amount of its long-term debt.

Conservatives back their standard-bearer’s tax policies — and they highlight three decades of overspending by governments on both sides of the political aisle — but Sarkozy’s defeat and disappearance have left a political leadership chasm that various prominent political figures are jockeying to fill ahead of a party congress in the fall. There are fears of political divisions — or even a split — that could leave his UMP party weak, divided, and largely irrelevant since the left controls all areas of government.

Should that scenario play out, Sarkozy, ever the tactician, knows the party might need a rejuvenated white knight who could ride in, once again, as the hero. Indeed, it seems he might not be disappearing so much as playing a waiting game. He is only 57, after all, and he remains a voracious political animal of nearly limitless ambition. He also knows that if the Socialists raise taxes and cut spending as much as they have promised, they will be far less popular in five years than they were on the day that Hollande defeated him at the ballot box.

If this pathway to a political restoration seems stunningly improbable today, it is worth remembering that Sarkozy has pulled plenty of surprising rabbits out of a hat in the past to resurrect himself. But the real trick this time may involve finding that damned bunny amid all of the merde.

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