Sarkozy probe: Why are the French so blasé about dirty money in politics?

The former French president could face trial for illegally financing his 2007 campaign. But such charges – and French indifference to them – are surprisingly common among his political peers.

Christophe Ena/AP/File
Nicolas Sarkozy, former French President and head of the conservative 'Les Republicains' party, leaves a meeting with French President François Hollande at the Elysee Palace in Paris last month. Mr. Sarkozy appeared last week before judges investigating the invoice system between his party and a company named Bygmalion in order to conceal unauthorized overspending.

When French voters head to the polls in just over a year, they may see a familiar and oft controversial name on the ballot: ex-President Nicolas Sarkozy. 

But before Mr. Sarkozy can have a shot at reclaiming the top post, he’ll have to prove his innocence in a handful of legal affairs, namely recent charges that he exceeded the legal limit in the financing of his unsuccessful 2012 presidential campaign.

Similar criminal charges would torpedo an American presidential aspirant. But not only is Sarkozy unfazed by the charges, neither is the French public. 

In a country where the line is strictly drawn between personal and public life and where political corruption is seen as the norm, a politician with a criminal past is at no more of a disadvantage than any other candidate. Sarkozy may not get re-elected in 2017 but his brushes with the law won’t be the reason why. So long as politicians perform their jobs adequately, French voters are  willing to overlook moderate malfeasance – even corruption.

“We have this idea in France that all politicians are corrupt,” says Paris resident Yann Clequin. “There is a sense of ‘do as I say, not as I do.’”

Fellow Paris resident Brendan Jannic says that as long as the crimes involve minor indiscretions, the public remains relatively blasé. “You can have an affair with another woman or do these little corrupt things, but unless you kill someone, nobody really cares,” says Mr. Jannic.

'Little importance'

Over the years, Sarkozy has been implicated in numerous legal cases, ranging from allegations that former Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi helped finance his 2007 presidential campaign to calls that he took advantage of L’Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt to finance that same campaign. His current brush with the law involves the so-called Bygmalion scandal, where the Bygmalion public relations company allegedly issued millions of euros of fake invoices to fund part of Sarkozy’s campaign.

Yet Sarkozy remains fairly popular. A February 2016 poll by French market research firm IFOP showed that a majority of those surveyed felt that Sarkozy’s criminal cases had zero impact on their opinion of him.

“He might still be rejected by the French public [at the next elections],” says Esteban Pratviel, a research executive at IFOP, “but there is nothing to indicate that this would be related to his former or current legal proceedings.”

A similar poll conducted by IFOP in 2014, which looked at several members of France’s conservative right-wing parties, showed that all politicians lost popularity that year, including Sarkozy, but not due to any pending legal cases.

And former President Jacques Chirac, who left politics in 2007 after holding public office for around 40 years, took with him rumors of extra-marital affairs and a long list of political scandals – including charges of diverting public funds while mayor of Paris. But public opinion remained unchanged over the course of his career.

In fact, in a May 2015 Oxada poll, Chirac was found to be the most popular of France’s former presidents, along with François Mitterand – whose own scandals spanned from illegal funding schemes to the famous divulgence of a secret daughter with his long-time mistress.

“French people feel like, as long as a politician is serving the country right and as long as there is no direct interference between his public and private life, [these acts] are of little importance,” says Vincent Michelot, a professor of American politics at Sciences Po Lyon. “It’s not like in the US where decorum can minimize someone’s functions. The French don’t pay much attention to that.”

A change-resistant political culture

And as opposed to the US, where new political faces are constantly jumping into the ring, Mr. Michelot says France suffers from an “arthritic pace of political renewal.” Politicians often serve multiple terms and posts throughout their careers, meaning that losing an election is not the end of a political future. All this time spent in office is another reason why voters may be more forgiving towards their politicians.

“The French are simply jaded,” says Dr. Michelot. “They’re used to the idea that their politicians are in there for life, so it increases the likelihood of accidents.”

In addition, France has parliamentary and presidential immunity that makes it difficult to prosecute politicians while they’re still in office. But while they may have been able to escape punishment during their terms, many still found the justice system to be in their favor when immunity ran out. 

Declared presidential candidate Alain Juppé, a former prime minister under President Chirac, was convicted of mishandling public funds in 2004 and handed an 18-month suspended jail sentence. After appealing the decision, he managed to win back the public’s trust to become mayor of Bordeaux in 2006 – a position he continues to hold today.

And former UMP/Républicains party chief Jean-Francois Copé was also implicated in the Bygmalion scandal. Mr. Copé has always maintained his innocence and last week announced his candidacy in the 2017 race. The center-right party is now headed by Sarkozy. 

Limits to French indifference

While infidelity or illegal campaign financing could be written off as unrelated to one’s political functions, some criminal charges do stick in French politics. Former IMF Director and once-presidential hopeful Dominique Strauss-Kahn has not been able to reboot his political career following allegations of sexual assault and “aggravated pimping” between 2011 and 2013. And former Budget Minister Jérôme Cahuzac has been involved in tax fraud allegations that have managed to soil his reputation for the time being.

As Sarkozy embarks on what look to be lengthy legal proceedings over his campaign financing past, it is unclear whether he’ll have time to focus on a serious presidential bid. But whatever happens, the French public is sure to look on with a certain sense of mocking.

“French people find something humorous in all of this,” says Jannic. “They like it – the spectacle of it all – it’s kind of like a show.”

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