Sarkozy, plagued by accusations, sees left-wing plot to destroy him

Dan Bilefsky
Nicolas Sarkozy
Lionel Bonaventure | AFP | Getty Images

Nicolas Sarkozy, the former president of France who suffered the unprecedented indignity last week of being hauled before an investigative panel for 15 hours of questioning, has angrily denounced the inquiry and cast himself as the victim of a vast left-wing plot to destroy him.

"There are things that are being organized," Mr. Sarkozy, a conservative who was France's head of state from 2007 to 2012, hinted darkly. He called the allegations against him "preposterous."

Sarkozy probe politically motivated?

Does he have a case?

Many of his supporters and some legal experts say he does, and express suspicions about the unusually aggressive legal tactics used in the case as well as its timing, which could torpedo his possible run for the presidency in 2017.

The string of accusations against Mr. Sarkozy — garnered in part from secretly recorded conversations of the former president and his lawyer — include that he sought confidential information from an influential judge and financed his 2007 presidential campaign with $68 million in illegal funds from Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi of Libya. If charged and found guilty of the most serious charge, he could face up to 10 years behind bars.

The Socialist prime minister, Manuel Valls, has insisted that the government is not behind the case. But critics, not least of them Mr. Sarkozy, say that such claims ring hollow in a country where the internecine battles between right and left are virulent.

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Mr. Sarkozy's supporters argue that the timing of the case against Mr. Sarkozy is no coincidence. President François Hollande, a Socialist and longtime political foe of Mr. Sarkozy's, is buffeted by record-low approval ratings, a sluggish economy and infighting among his party ranks. Sébastien Huyghe, a parliamentarian and member of Mr. Sarkozy's rightist Union for a Popular Movement party, argued that Mr. Sarkozy's misfortunes were calculated to revive Mr. Hollande's own sagging political prospects.

"I think that people on the left are significantly concerned by Mr. Sarkozy's political comeback," he said. "They've named judges who don't like Sarkozy, and it is very insidious. I am convinced that the president of the republic is deeply afraid of Mr. Sarkozy. His greatest fear is to run against him in 2017, and he will use any means possible to beat him."

While there is no evidence of Mr. Hollande's direct involvement in the case, some see a personal vendetta at work. The bitter rivalry between Mr. Sarkozy and Mr. Hollande has sometimes boiled over into barely concealed hatred. During the 2012 presidential campaign, Mr. Sarkozy calleMr. Hollande "useless" and a liar, and said he had not achieved anything in 30 years of politics. Mr. Hollande, in turn, described Mr. Sarkozy as a "salopard," or bastard.

The political timing of the case also raises questions, coming at a decidedly bad time for Mr. Sarkozy's party, battered by a leadership crisis and adrift politically. Before the latest scandal, Mr. Sarkozy was viewed as a likely candidate to lead the party, which will choose a leader in November. Now that he is tainted, his prospects are significantly diminished.

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Though evidence of a conspiracy is circumstantial at best, few disagree that Mr. Sarkozy is despised on the left. Both as a former interior minister, and then as president, he deeply infuriated the left by advocating free markets, espousing a zero-tolerance approach to crime and characterizing the judiciary as an insipid clique too soft on criminals.

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Some political observers have suggested that his contempt for the judiciary is coming back to haunt him. Mr. Sarkozy sought last week to cast doubts on one of the judges on the case, Claire Thépaut, noting that she was a member of a leftist magistrate's union. Others have observed that the newly established anticorruption prosecutor's office pursuing the case against Mr. Sarkozy was established under a Socialist government in January.

Jean-Jérôme Bertolus, a leading commentator for the French broadcaster Itele, noted that in the Sarkozy camp, Ms. Thépaut was considered "a personal enemy." Asked about Mr. Sarkozy's election defeat in 2012 by a journalist for Mediapart, a news website, Ms. Thépaut replied, "What is certain is that we hope to return to calm, serenity and confidence."

Though apparently no fan of the former president, she is not precluded from judging the case, and the French news media characterized Ms. Thépaut as a serious and respected judge. The magistrate's union told Le Monde, the daily newspaper, that while Ms. Thépaut had been engaged with the union, she had never been a member, nor campaigned against Mr. Sarkozy. Françoise Martres, the president of the magistrate's union, also rose to her defense, saying that "a judge without opinions doesn't exist."

For all the talk of conspiracy, many analysts see Mr. Sarkozy's attempt to portray himself as a victim as a disingenuous tactic aimed at drawing attention away from the legal challenges that he faces. "It is hard to see this as a conspiracy when you have so many cases accumulated against Mr. Sarkozy," said Érik Emptaz, editor in chief of Le Canard enchaîné, an influential satirical newspaper. "But it's also true that the tactics used against him have been spectacularly aggressive."

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The case against Mr. Sarkozy hinges on whether he, with the help of his lawyer, Thierry Herzog, sought to obtain information from an influential appeals court judge, Gilbert Azibert, about a legal inquiry into the financing of his 2007 election campaign. At issue is whether Mr. Azibert fed Mr. Sarkozy information and whether in return he was promised a post in Monaco. But critics of the case note that Mr. Azibert never received any job in the principality, and had no direct links to any of the cases under scrutiny.

The tactics used by investigators could prove problematic in court, legal experts said. The bulk of the case against Mr. Sarkozy hinges on secret recordings of his private conversations with his lawyer that may breach lawyer-client privilege.

Pierre-Olivier Sur, president of the Paris bar association, told the right-leaning Le Figaro newspaper that under French law, secret recordings of private conversations made in 2013 were not admissible for a case dating from years earlier. "The attempt to use 2013 calls to shed light on facts that happened in 2006 creates doubts about the real goal of these wiretaps," he said.