Nicolas Sarkozy addresses France amid L’Oreal campaign scandal

French President Nicolas Sarkozy is expected to address allegations that his campaign received $190,000 in illegal campaign contributions from France's richest woman, L’Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt.

Thibault Camus/AP
French President Nicolas Sarkozy, right, looks on prior to receive his Egyptian counterpart Hosni Mubarak, unseen, at the Elysee Palace in Paris, July 5.

Nicolas Sarkozy has a lot to explain when he takes questions live on TV Monday night.

His campaign treasurer is accused of receiving $190,000 in illegal campaign cash from the country's richest woman, L’Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt. Amid this and other criticism, he wants to cut the national budget and raise the retirement age.

Oh yes – and the president wants to get reelected in 2012, despite facing the lowest presidential ratings in France since 1958.

The flamboyant leader's appearance on France-2 TV tonight will be a rare question-and-answer style interview ahead of Bastille Day and the summer holiday. It is expected to sidestep policy issues and instead focus on the multiple scandals and general discontent that have swept into Paris like a summer storm and threatened Sarkozy's political future.

The pain started in late June, when France crashed out of the World Cup amid internal bickering and infighting, leading Sarkozy to personally address the issue. Some here called it a metaphor for the ostentation, wealth, and individualism of Sarkozy's ruling party. The sports affair seemed to set the stage for bigger problems.

Soon after, media reports surfaced that Sarkozy's labor minister, Eric Woerth, accepted $190,000 (far above the legal limit) from Ms. Bettencourt as a donation for Sarkozy's 2007 presidential campaign. Mr. Woerth also faces charges of conflict of interest with the Bettencourt family, because he was budget minister while his wife worked for a company managing Bettencourt's estate. Separately, the finance ministry has cleared Woerth of accusations that he helped the Bettencourt family evade taxes, but opposition leaders want an independent investigation into this, too.

The French political climate soured so suddenly that Sarkozy’s center-right party unexpectedly lost a by-election July 11 to a little-known Green candidate in what has been for decades a stronghold of the French right, the city of Rambouillet. Two weeks ago the seat looked safe.

Political analyst and columnist Jean-Francois Kahn describes the sentiment as a “revolt” of the middle class: "Had general parliamentary elections been held last Sunday, and if you project voting patterns in Rambouillet … [Sarkozy's Union for a Popular Movement party] would obtain less than a 100 seats” in a general election, far from a majority.

Palace attacks media

Perhaps giving a glimpse at Sarkozy's tactics tonight, his administration is hitting back against what they say is a left-wing online media cabal, typified by Mediapart and Rue 89, who have been breaking the incriminating stories.

Online news site Mediapart was the first to publicize the Bettencourt scandal, which is now being covered by mainstream papers across the political spectrum, like Le Monde, Liberation, and Le Figaro.

Mediapart published allegations from Ms. Bettencourt’s butler, who reportedly secretly taped conversations that reveal tax evasion. Mediapart also published remarks from Bettencourt’s accountant, who said the heiress gave $190,000 in illegal cash to Woerth during the 2007 presidential campaign in which Sarkozy was elected.

Prime Minister François Fillon has already shot back at Mediapart.

“Do the media, who allow themselves to spread without caution information that turns out to be gossip and calumnies, still have a conscience?" he said. "France is a country that knows the Rule of Law. France has an independent Judiciary. In France we do not need any self-proclaimed upholder of the law."

Mediapart is run by a former Le Monde investigative journalist and 30 colleagues, and has been supported in recent weeks by the Paris-based Reporters San Frontières. Sarkozy is closely affiliated with a number of media moguls in France.

Ahead of tonight’s interview, Mediapart called out the TV2 journalist interviewing the president, David Pujadas, to be truly independent. The live interview will be held at the Élysée Palace at 8:15 pm local time, which is the middle of the news half-hour.

Mediapart suggested 13 questions Mr. Pujadas could ask Sarkozy, including whether Bettencourt gave $190,000 to Woerth, whether the Bettencourts gave Sarkozy envelopes of cash years ago, questions on multiple conflict of interest allegations, and: “Can you reconcile all that the Bettencourt affair reveals with the spirit of ‘a Republic beyond reproach’ transparency that you called for in your election campaign?”

Sarkozy's Facebook page registers discontent

Sarkozy has even witnessed a minor revolt on his own Facebook page, which until a few weeks ago was generally studded with admiring comments.

To be sure, he still has admirers, such as one Nicolas Cartoux: "It is not by listening to mere gossiping that France will move forward!!!! The French get divided when they should rally, we should display solidarity and not indulger in this petty warfare."

But Sarkozy's Facebook page now registers an uptick in criticism from supporters, such as one named Ludovic: "It is raining this morning. I live opposite to L'Oréal's head office, I am looking through the window: I am thinking about the billions that Madame owns and about the hard time that I am going through. (...) I want light to be shed on this affair. I voted for you. I regret it."


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