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Sarkozy’s comeback-trail faces legal hurdles

Oussama Romdhani

Published: Updated:

Never did France’s polarized politics seem so entangled in legal cases than these last few weeks.

For decades, frictions between the judicial and political spheres have been a permanent feature of France’s uneasy system of checks and balances. But despite that particular tradition, there was a collective gasp in the ranks of the rightwing opposition when former president Nicolas Sarkozy was charged on March 21 with receiving illegal campaign contributions from L’Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt.

Sarkozy’s supporters went as far as to call Jean-Michel Gentil, the Bordeaux investigating-magistrate who brought the charges against the former president, “a disgrace” for France. Things got even tenser, a week later, when the magistrate received a death-threat letter with blank cartridges enclosed. The terrorist threat constituted a sharp turn of events, even by the standards of France’s tumultuous politics.

Turbulence on the re-entry track

Political tensions emanating from Judge Gentil’s decision have to do in many regards with Mr. Sarkozy high profile attempts at re-entering the political fray, less than a year after losing his re-election bid. Although the dust has not yet settled over last year's acrimonious electoral campaign, the losing presidential candidate was already positioning himself as the right-wing’s best hope to win the 2017 election. He was firmly put into that political orbit after the failure of the main conservative formation, the UMP, to reach a clear consensus over his successor as leader of the party.

Francois Sarkozy has made his intentions quite clear since earlier this month. In an interview to the conservative magazine Valeurs Actuelles, he admitted to being tempted by a political comeback, although saying he was “motivated by a sense of duty, not by desire.” In the same interview, the French president derided his successor’s decision to send French troops to Mali. “What are we doing there? Lending support to paratroopers and trying to gain control of a territory three times larger than France with 4,000 soldiers?” Mr. Sakozy, who was behind the military campaign which toppled Libya’s Qaddafi in 2011, was not shy of returning to Tripoli for his second “victory lap” since the 2011 visit there with British Prime Minister David Cameron.

But there was still turbulence ahead on the comeback trail. Upon his return home from Tripoli, Mr. Sarkozy was summoned for questioning in Bordeaux and informed by the judges that he was made a suspect in a case of “abuse of someone in an impaired state.” He was accused of receiving up to 150.000 Euros in donations from the mentally-diminished Bettencourt, reportedly the richest woman in France (with a personal fortune estimated at about 17 billion Euros).

Political polarization

The French political class is today divided along ideological lines not only on the Sarkozy affair but the workings of the judicial system in general. The public’s reaction to Mr. Sarkozy’s legal problems varies according to political affiliation. Opinion polls show that left-leaning citizens are more “confident” than rightwing respondents in the ability of the justice system to be “neutral” vis-à-vis the former president. French public opinion in general is about evenly divided on the issue, a clear indicator of the politicized perception of the Courthouse in France.

Against such a background, it is not surprising that a number of right-wing commentators have been describing Judge Gentil as somebody with a political ax to grind against the former president; while those on the left have been describing Mr. Sarkozy’s problems as a reflection of the “newly-gained independence” of the judiciary. The attitude of the Bordeaux magistrate is depicted by the right as illustrative of the wider “leftist bias” among magistrates against politicians in general and conservative figures in particular. Gilles William Goldnadel, founding president of Avocats sans Frontieres, believes “the more you are famous, the more you are exposed to judiciary excess.” The death threat letter received by Judge Gentil even denounced the magistrates’ union as a “small group of red revolutionary judges.”

Political polarization on judicial issues runs deep through the media as well. Political scientist Stéphane Rozès thinks there is an “alliance” between a section of magistrates and the media aimed at helping the magistracy “regains a form of independence from political tutelage.”

Conspiracy theories

These political and ideological prisms explain the intense flurry of conspiracy theories regarding the decision of the judiciary to level charges at Mr. Sakozy. The conservative opposition has tried to present Judge Gentil’s decision as a too-convenient diversion from the troubles of socialist finance minister Jerome Cahuzac who had resigned, 48 hours earlier, after being faced with a criminal investigation on charges of tax evasion. A close ally of Mr. Sarkozy, former minister Laurent Wauquiez, discounted any “coincidence in timing” between both investigations.

Some of the “Friends of Sarkozy” did not refrain from speculating that the judge’s move against the former president was aimed at stunting the growing popularity of Mr. Sarkozy. Among them, former minister Brice Hortefeux, said the hidden-goal behind such a decision was to “shake the mounting confidence” of the public in the former president. Other conspiracy theorists went even further. “I wonder if there is no de-stabilization effort currently underway in our country,” asked Christine Boutin, leader of the French Christian Democratic Party.

Teflon-politician

Ironically, the judicial move against Mr. Sarkozy had no real impact on his public opinion standing. A recent poll by the BVA polling agency showed that 63 percent of the French public felt the investigation of Mr. Sarkozy on criminal charges was not likely to jeopardize his chances at a political come-back.

In fact, polls show that public support to the former president, increased among UMP members and the public at large, between the first and third weeks of the month of March. Mr. Sarkozy is now ahead of all likely candidates to the 2017 presidential race, which was not the case three weeks earlier. Never was the “Teflon effect” so clearly in motion in French politics.

Former Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin thinks that current judicial troubles will not dampen Mr. Sarkozy’s enthusiasm for a political comeback. “The only possible impact will be to convince him to take his seat in the public debate even earlier,” he said.

Another factor that is likely to encourage Mr. Sarkozy to go ahead with his comeback plans is President Francois Hollande’s rock-bottom standing in public opinion. According to Le Monde’s Francoise Fressoz, “month after month as the popularity of Francois Holland plummets, Nicolas Sarkozi becomes even more conspicuous.”

The experience of France shows that that when politics become a full-contact sport, politicians have no option but to steer their careers through the Courthouse.

Oussama Romdhani

Last Thursday, President Holland went on national television to try to shore up his credibility. But two thirds of the public said later they were not convinced by what they heard. Exactly the same ratio of French voters who are unhappy over his overall performance. Jean-Luc Parodi, a consultant at the IFOP opinion research firm points out this is an all-time-low among all French presidents ten months after assuming office.

Politics and the Courthouse

Mr. Sarkozy’s political destiny will continue to run through the Courthouse. Beside the Bettencourt case, the former president faces investigations into alleged irregularities in the awarding of contracts by the Elysée palace to opinion research firms, unlawful investigations of journalists and alleged kickbacks in a Pakistani arms deal gone sour.

But as Mr. Sarkozy’s recent case has shown, the relationship between any Courthouse’s decisions and the fate of politicians, at least in France, is not necessarily that of crime-and-punishment. Lawsuits have not always stacked the odds against French politicians. Many thought Alain Juppé’s political career finished when, in 2004, he was tried, sentenced to one-year-suspended sentence and declared ineligible for a year. But in 2005, he was already back in politics. And By 2010, he was serving as Mr. Sarkozy’s minister of defense and then as his minister of foreign affairs.

Gael Sliman, an expert at the BVA opinion research firm, attributes this seeming invulnerability of French politicians to “the cynicism of the French who consider their politicians to be all corrupt, in any case. The latter can therefore remain popular even after legal troubles.”

But there is probably more to this issue than “cynicism.” The experience of France shows that that when politics become a full-contact sport, politicians have no option but to steer their careers through the Courthouse. Magistrates, on the other hand, have to steer their caseloads through increasingly-intrusive media and politics. Checks and balances become a continuous struggle depending on how the pendulum swings between the vying poles of justice and politics.

(Oussama Romdhani is a former Tunisian minister of Communication, previously in charge of his country's international image. He served as a Tunisian diplomat to the United States, from 1981 to 1995. He was also a Washington DC press correspondent and Fulbright Research Scholar at Georgetown University. Romdhani is currently an international media analyst.)

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