Sarkocracy, or the perks and privileges of an ‘irreproachable' administration

President Nicolas Sarkozy's electoral campaign pledge to create "irreproachable" government has been lost to a series of affairs involving ministers and acolytes serving their personal interests through public office. As his presidency approaches the four-year mark, Sophie Dufau presents some of the most notable examples of clannishness and cronyism that have characterised the Sarkozy administration almost from day one.

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President Nicolas Sarkozy's electoral campaign pledge to create an "irreproachable" government has been lost to a series of scandals involving ministers and acolytes serving their personal interests through public office. As his presidency approaches the four-year mark, Sophie Dufau returns to some notable examples of the clannishness and cronyism that have marked the Sarkozy administration almost from day one.

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Far from the lofty rhetoric of his presidential election campaign, Nicolas Sarkozy was quick to establish a regime of clannishness, favour-mongering and cronyism that did nothing to distance him from his predecessors. The process began immediately after his election, when he entertained more than 50 of his wealthiest friends, mostly leading businessmen and celebrities, for a lavish dinner at Le Fouquet's, an exclusive restaurant-hotel on the Champs-Elysées.

Shortly after that he left for the Mediterranean to celebrate his success on board the luxury yacht Paloma owned by billionaire tycoon Vincent Bolloré, a French industrialist and corporate raider who controls several advertising and media companies. It was the start of what became known as the 'Bling-Bling' presidency.

The French president is of course is free to choose the friends he wants. But the court made up of the rich and the famous he so publicly surrounded himself sat awkwardly with the "exemplary democracy" he claimed to aspire to in an interview with French daily Le Figaro during his first month in power. He declared then that "the president of the republic must not be the man of one party or clan". Just like his other campaign slogan "work more to earn more", those words would swiftly return to haunt him, and here are a few reasons why.

1: Keeping it all in the family

We begin with the case of Jean Sarkozy (pictured left) and the Epad, a public agency for the development of La Défense, a sprawling, high-rise business quarter - the largest in Europe - sited just outside the western flanks of Paris. The affair drew international press attention for its flagrant illustration of nepotism and ‘Sarkocracy' in action.

In September 2009, the President's 23-year-old son Jean, a second-year law student, was announced as the intended successor to 65 year-old Patrick Devedjian as president of the Epad. The nomination of this inexperienced and unqualified dauphin caused scandal and protest from local mayors, both right and left. The leading Socialist Party Member of Parliament Manuel Valls, saw it as "intolerable" and denounced "the Sarkozy clan's push for power" in the Hauts-de-Seine département, the administrative region (equivalent to a county) in which the business district is located, and which Sarkozy has made his political stronghold. Valls's socialist colleague Arnaud Montebourg lambasted "the beginnings of clan and family warfare".

On October 13th, Jean Sarkozy appeared on the France 3 television channel to declare that he would "fight to the end", but faced with the wave of opposition he was finally forced to renounce from standing on October 22nd. Nicolas Sarkozy protested that his son had been "thrown to the wolves". On October 23rd, a compromise was met and Jean was nevertheless appointed as an administrator of the Epad - while waiting for better times ahead.

 

2: Liliane Bettencourt, L'Oréal and cosmetic justice

 

Inspirational? Liliane Bettencourt during a French TV interview. © France 3 Inspirational? Liliane Bettencourt during a French TV interview. © France 3
In 2010, the affair that had began as an ugly family dispute pitching L’Oréal heiress and majority shareholder Liliane Bettencourt (pictured right) against her daughter and only child Françoise Bettencourt-Meyers, became a major political and business scandal that dominated headlines in France and around the world.

Mediapart was at the centre of a series of exclusive revelations concerning the deeper implications of the affair, involving Sarkozy himself, government ministers, and an attempt by the presidency to stifle the legal action that sparked the whole affair. This was a civil complaint lodged by Françoise against celebrity photographer, writer and society dandy François-Marie Banier, who she accused of taking advantage of her mother’s mental frailty to convince her to hand him, over several years, one billion euros-worth of gifts.

The lawsuit was launched in December 2007. In November 2008, the L’Oréal heiress, who rejected her daughter’s claim, and her wealth advisor, Patrice de Maistre, were received at the Elysée Palace by Nicolas Sarkozy in person. Bettencourt used aide-memoire jottings on slips of paper to recall what to say in important conversations and her former accountant, Claire Thibout, remembered that, for the Sarkozy meeting, she had added an appeal to the president “to sort out the problem of her daughter.”

In a private conversation on July 21st 2009, secretly recorded by the matriarch's butler and published online by Mediapart last year (see links below), Patrice de Maistre explained to the millionaire that on the phone that morning he had spoken to Patrick Ouart, "the judicial advisor, at the Elysée, who I see regularly for you." Maistre said the conversation had been about their efforts to block her daughter's complaint against Banier, which was officially the subject of a preliminary investigation led by Public Prosecutor Philippe Courroye. "He told me that Prosecutor Courroye will pronounce, normally on September 3rd, that your daughter's complaint is inadmissible," continued Maistre, "so the case will be closed." Indeed, so it was that, on September 3rd 2009, the high court in Nanterre threw out Françoise Bettencourt-Meyers's civil complaint.

Despite this attempt to gag the case, it eventually became a major affair of state and, ultimately, the subject of a judicial investigation today closed after a settlement between Liliane, Françoise and Banier, who returned a large amount of the wealth he had acquired from the matriarch.

  • Read more of Mediapart's reports on the Bettencourt affair, beginning here, here and here.
3: Sisters and mercy

On June 9th 2008, French Prime Minister François Fillon approved the extradition to Italy of Marina Petrella, a former member of the Italian terrorist Red Brigades group. Petrella had fled to France in 1993 after she was sentenced by an Italian court to life imprisonment for murder, kidnapping and other crimes in connection with her terrorist past.

Carla Bruni and Nicolas Sarkozy. © Reuters Carla Bruni and Nicolas Sarkozy. © Reuters
French first lady Carla Bruni-Sarkozy's sister, Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, took up the cause for Petrella calling for the extradition to be annulled. In Carla's own words, Valeria "frequently spoke of this subject with my husband."

In October that year, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy told French daily Libération that she and Valeria had visited Petrella in hospital in Paris with a message from President Sarkozy that "You will not be extradited to Italy". Five days after the visit, on October 11th 2008, the president's office announced that Fillon's June extradition decree had been overturned for "humanitarian reasons", leading to a storm of protest in Italy.

Three months earlier, anecdotally but most symbolically, Carla had posed in a superb red dress on the roof of the Elysée Palace (pictured right) for American photographer Annie Leibovitz. In the photo shoot for the magazine Vanity Fair, the French presidential palace was made her stepping-stone.


 

4: Banking on, and with, friends in high places

In February 2009, François Pérol (pictured left), deputy secretary-general (chief-of-staff) of the French presidency, was appointed head of the newly-formed BPCE banking group, a merger of two large French banks, the Banques Populaires and Caisses d'Epargnes. The nomination unleashed a storm of controversy and protest from both the opposition and among President Sarkozy's ruling UMP party. The French national ethics commission, la Commission de déontologie, had not been consulted as it should have been, despite the French president's surprising comments to the contrary. Two civil suits were filed by militant taxpayers' and anti-corruption associations for suspected conflict of interest, which the Paris prosecutor's office later dismissed.

For in 2006, Pérol was a managing partner of the Rothschild bank and worked on the creation of Natixis, a corporate, investment and financial services operation for the Banques Populaires. Moreover, in his capacity as deputy secretary-general of the Elysée, it was he who piloted the merger of the Caisses d'Epargne and Banques Populaires, bringing the chairmen of the two establishments in his office to organise the merger.

As Mediapart was the first to reveal, Pérol awarded himself a salary increase in 2010 of 247%, bringing his total yearly earnings at the BPCE to 1.6 million euros. That same year, he was also graced with the Légion d'honneur, France's highest award for civil merit.

 

5: Top job hotline

The case of Stéphane Richard (pictured right) largely passed under the media radar. In 2007 this apparatchik par excellence became principal private secretary to then-economy and finance minister Jean-Louis Borloo, and was maintained in the post by Borloo's successor Christine Lagarde. That same year, he was ordered to pay a tax adjustment of 660,000 euros, including a 5% penalty for "mauvaise foi" - in short, dishonesty. That didn't stop Nicolas Sarkozy from awarding him the Légion d'honneur with the words: "You've succeeded well, you are rich, perhaps one day I'll make it like you."

Stéphane Richard is a close friend of the president, a confidant who, in May 2009, was propelled by Sarkozy to the management board of France Télécom without any consultation with the board itself. He then became director general for international activities on January 1st 2010, before succeeding Didier Lombard as CEO.

6: Flushed with rage

Cap Nègre © dr. Cap Nègre © dr.
The French first lady's family, the Bruni Tedeschis, own a large property (pictured right) overlooking the Mediterranean Sea at Cap Nègre, on the western fringe of the French Riviera. During the summer holidays of 2008, the president found time to help them over a drainage problem.On August 16th, between his high-profile involvement in the Russia-Georgia crisis and his visit to Afghanistan, Sarkozy was invited to the AGM of the owners of all the properties on the Cap Nègre estate, the miniature peninsula upon which stands the property of his in-laws.

Lending his weight to the Bruni Tedeschis, the president spoke up in favour of the installation of mains sewage evacuation on the private residential estate - an issue that had divided opinion among the property owners for years. Three days later, on August 19th, Sarkozy organised a meeting at the Bruni-Tedeschis' villa. On the invitation list were the local prefect, Jacques Laisné, a director of the local government's planning and facilities department, the local mayor (and a member of Sarkozy's ruling UMP party), and representatives of the 50 or so Cap Nègre property owners. But despite all the lobbying, the quarrel over sewage treatment had still not been resolved by the following summer. That was when the prefect, Jacques Laisné, was removed from his job in the region by a decree signed by the French president. Laisné was given no new territorial post, and no reason was given for the sanction.

 

7: A comedy of sorts

Also in 2008, Sarkozy's close friend, the comic actor Christian Clavier (pictured with the president left), was targeted by independence campaigners on the island of Corsica, where he owns a sprawling property in a tourist complex at Porto-Vecchio. On August 30th, some 50 nationalist militants demonstrating against what they called the "spoliation" of local land, held a peaceful, one-hour picnic sit-in in the gardens of Clavier's holiday home.

Three days later, the senior police officer in charge of coordinating the island's security forces, Dominique Rossi, was dismissed from his job. The removal of this high-ranking police officer with some 30 years' professional experience caused outrage among police unions. The following year, the investigative weekly Le Canard Enchaîné revealed that, following the nationalist sit-in, Clavier's holiday home was protected day and night by two gendarmes, spread over three shifts per 24 hours, representing a monthly salary bill of 40,000 euros.

 

8: Wonderful windfall

In July 2008, the flamboyant French tycoon, one-time minister, multi-millionaire, bankrupt, actor and singer Bernard Tapie, who was an outspoken supporter for Nicolas sarkozy's presidential election campaign, was awarded 390 million euros of tax-payers' money in a private compensation settlement that ended a dispute with the former state-owned Crédit Lyonnais bank.

 © Mediapart © Mediapart
The case centred on the bank's sale, in the early 1990s, of Tapie's business assets, for which it was mandated by him. Also at this time, in 1993, the then state-owned Crédit Lyonnais, (now called LCL after it was privatized and bought by the Crédit Agricole), was at the centre of one of France's biggest-ever banking scandals when it became the subject of a massive public bail-out after going bankrupt through high-risk lending.

Tapie eventually launched a lawsuit against the bank which he accused of fraud after it paid him less than the true value of its sale of his controlling stake in sportswear and accessories company Adidas.

But in October 2007, five months after Nicolas Sarkozy's election, which former socialist minister Tapie had publicly supported, the state agency responsible for managing the liabilities of the Crédit Lyonnais, the Consortium de Réalisation (CDR), agreed with Tapie's representatives to settle the dispute through out-of-court arbitration. So it was that the following year, the CDR reached a deal with Tapie to pay him 390 million euros, of which 40 million euros were granted for ‘moral' (personal) damages.

Ten days later, French finance minister Christine Lagarde admitted that instructions had been given to support the arbitration process and remove the case from the courts, where in effect it was the French state, in the form of the CDR, that was being sued by Tapie.

In March 2011 Socialist Party Members of Parliament approached the public prosecutor with France's highest appeal court, notifying him that a recent parliamentary report on the settlement found evidence that the decision to move the case into private arbitration "had the aim of favouring personal interests to the detriment of public interest". A preliminary investigation has now been opened by the court's chief prosecutor to establish the circumstances of the arbitration settlement.

Meanwhile, the French national audit office, la Cour des comptes, has recommended that two senior officials should be sent before a disciplinary court for their role in the huge payout to Tapie. One of them, CDR head Jean-François Rocchi is suspected of having modified the records of the CDR board meeting that ratified the sum. He has strenuously denied any wrongdoing, as has Lagarde.

9: Snakes and ladders

At the very beginning of his mandate, Nicolas Sarkozy announced a series of new appointments that boosted the careers of a number of his close entourage. Frédéric Péchenard, a friend of the president since childhood, was appointed head of the national police force. Laurent Solly, former deputy presidential election campaign director for Sarkozy, became deputy managing director of the TF1 media group. In July 2008, Jean-Claude Dassier (whose elder son, Arnaud Dassier, was in charge of internet operations for Sarkozy's presidential campaign) was made head of news at the TF1 television channel. Bernard Squarcini, a long-time friend of the president, became the director of the new interior intelligence agency, the Direction Centrale du Renseignement Intérieur (DCRI, formerly the DST).

Then there were those whose careers took a dive. Among those sent downwards for the crime of lese-majesty is Jean Charbonniaud. He was just six months into his job as prefect for the northern La Manche département (administrative region equivalent to a county) when he and local police commissioner Philippe Bourgade were ousted after a January 2009 official presidential visit to the region. During the trip, th president was met in the town of St. Lô by jeering demonstrators who prevented him from a planned handshake walkabout in front of the media. The sanctions against the two officials for not having prevented the demonstrators from approaching Sarkozy, were denounced by local politicians from the president's ruling UMP party, including the mayor of St. Lô.

Then there was Marc Robert, a public prosecutor in the town of Riom, in the central Puy-de-Dôme département. He had publicly and strongly opposed a reform of the French justice system which foresaw closure of a number of provincial court houses and the abolition, now abandoned, of the role of examining (investigating) magistrates. He was swiftly removed from his job in Riom and transferred to the Paris appeals court, which magistrates describe as an elephants' graveyard for public prosecutors. The two main magistrates' unions, the Union syndicale des magistrats (USM) and the Syndicat de la magistrature (SM) contested the legality of the move, and in January this year it was overturned by the Council of State (Conseil d'Etat).

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English version: Alison Culliford

(Editing by Graham Tearse)

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This compilation of events highlighting the clannish excesses of the Sarkozy administrtauion is partly sourced from a book of reports on the subject edited by Mediapart - N'oubliez pas! Faits & gestes de la présidence Sarkozy ('Don't forget - the facts and acts of Sarkozy's presidency') - and published in France in January 2010 by Don Quichotte, currently available in French only.