Garvan Walshe is a former national and international security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party.
The French presidency sure comes with perks. You get to work from the Elysée palace, be co-prince of the ski-resort-cum-tax-haven Andorra, host the Bastille day parade, instruct your troops to play Daft Punk at Donald Trump, command at least one hoverboard soldier, and enjoy immunity from prosecution.
But that immunity doesn’t last so long after leaving office, as Nicholas Sarkozy found out this week when he was sentenced to three years in prison (two suspended) for trying to get a judge to interfere in a legal case against him. Other cases hang over him – so those extra two years might not stay suspended for long.
“Sarko” made his name playing a number of stock political characters. He built his network, personal as much as professional, as the mayor of the wealthy and influential Parisian suburb Neuilly-Sur-Seine. He did a turn as the tough interior minister shielded by his immigrant background, promising to clear the streets of rioting Arab youths with a “kärcher” pressure washer. In a cameo that must have inspired Rudy Giuliani, he was, apparently, Silvio Berluconi’s lawyer for a while. In office, he divorced a second time, and married the singer Carla Bruni, to the delight and profit of Paris Match!
The consummate opportunist had met his second wife (the one he divorced for Bruni) while officiating at her marriage to her previous husband. With Chirac bowing out, the 2007 election was fought over two competing symbols of change. The Socialists had nominated Ségoléne Royale, pitching to be the first woman to win the presidency. Sarkozy hoped to outflank her with radicalism.
He won the presidency by promising a “rupture” from France’s old political class, sweep away a corrupt and inefficent elite and, restore dynamism to a tired country. His was a pitch for optimism and renovation that prefigured Obama’s hope and change the following year. But in retrospect, he stands out as the ultimate huckster-politician, the one who burnishes his unconventional story to promise change that will finally benefit the little guy. We just didn’t realise that Sarkozy, who, said Obama, was “about five foot five but wore lifts in his shoes,” meant himself.
It is a curiosity of French politics that in the reverse of the British pattern, right-wing scandals have to do with money while left-wing ones are about sex. Allegations of financial corruption duly pursued Sarkozy. With his predecessor from the French centre right, Jacques Chirac, also at the wrong end of justice over fake jobs, and François Fillon, who hoped to succeed him, derailed by a fake job scandal of his own, we might be tempted to say that he acted in the best traditions of his party.
Sarko, however, looked determined to outshine them. Dodgy foreign campaign financing isn’t unusual in France (just ask Marine Le Pen about her Russian bank) but only Sarkozy stands accused of raising dough from the self-styled Brotherly Leader of the Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, Colonel Gaddafi. From guns to the IRA to money to Sarkozy, the LSE’s student’s dad thought he had it all covered.
Yet there’s no evidence Sarkozy found himself bound by Gaddafi’s generosity. When Libyans revolted against their dictator in 2011, the then President, together with David Cameron, led the campaign to bomb him out of office. This must make him the second most ungrateful Hungarian ever, after a young man called Viktor to whom George Soros once gave a photocopier.
All Sarkozy’s hyperactive energy couldn’t help him get France’s structural economic problems under control. He didn’t manage to reform public sector pensions or give productivity the boost he needed. There’s a fair case that this task, difficult even at the best of times, had been made impossible by the financial crisis. Despite topping the poll in the first round, he lost his bid for reelection to the ex-partner of the woman he had defeated five years previously in the run-off.
The fiercely ambitious Sarkozy was in reality a trophy-wife toting populist avant la lettre. We should have known much sooner. As much as he promised a rupture with the old France, he celebrated his victory with a lavish party at the elite Champs-Élysée restaurant Fouquet’s. At least Trump stuck to his cheeseburgers.