Days before French citizens head back to the booths in a run-off vote to elect their new president, the shadow of scandal has returned to the electoral campaign.
Médiapart, a Paris-based investigative news site, published a 2006 document [Fr/Ar] on Saturday, April 28, that has brought renewed attention to the claim that presidential candidate Nicolas Sarkozy violated campaign financing laws by accepting 50m euros ($66m) from the late Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.
These allegations were followed by another blow just days later, when Mediapart ran an interview [Fr] on Thursday with former Libyan prime minister Baghdadi Ali al-Mahmoudi, in which he confirmed the authenticity of the documents and reiterated the allegations.
The reports first surfaced in March 2011, when Gaddafi, his son, Saif al-Islam, and the former head of Libya's secret services, Abdullah Senoussi, all announced they had proof Tripoli had financed Sarkozy's 2007 presidential campaign.
The campaign finance allegations are the latest episode in a series of scandals in which Sarkozy has been implicated.
With the second round of voting scheduled for Sunday, May 6, accusations have been flying between Sarkozy and Socialist Party candidate François Hollande, dominating French headlines. Some commentators are saying that the attention is causing a "crisis of confidence" by discrediting politicians in the eyes of French citizens.
Illicit campaign funds
The document, written in Arabic and signed by Gaddafi's foreign intelligence chief Moussa Koussa, says Tripoli agreed to "support Nicolas Sarkozy's electoral campaign to the order of 50m euros [$66m]".
It says that the agreement was reached at a meeting on October 6, 2006, at which Abdullah Senoussi, head of African investment fund Bashir Saleh joined former interior minister (and close Sarkozy associate) Brice Hortefeux, along with reported arms dealer [Fr] Ziad Takieddine.
Takieddine's lawyer told Médiapart that her client thought the document seemed credible, although denied being at the aforementioned meeting. Saleh, Koussa, and Hortefeux have all refuted the claims.
The papers were allegedly shown to Médiapart journalists during their investigation of another ongoing affair involving Sarkozy, known as the Karachi case.
That case, which centres on whether or not kickbacks on a 1994 sale of three submarines to Pakistan were used to illegally fund the 1995 presidential campaign of former prime minister and Sarkozy mentor Edouard Balladur, erupted in 2002 after a bomb in Pakistan killed 14 people, 11 of whom were French submarine engineers.
The bombing is suspected to have been orchestrated by Pakistani officials for unpaid bribes that were promised alongside the arms deal.
Sarkozy is also implicated in a third scandal involving illegal campaign financing, the Woerth-Bettencourt Affair, an investigation into whether L'Oreal heiress Lillian Bettencourt made illegal financial contributions to his 2007 campaign in return for tax breaks.
In response to all these accusations, Bernard Cazeneuve, a spokesperson for Hollande, called on Sarkozy on Saturday to "explain himself to the French people".
Hollande's camp has consistently highlighted a "dire need for truth and transparency" throughout the campaign, while Sarkozy has always denied any involvement in the scandals.
The incumbent, speaking on French television channel Canal +, chalked the accusations [Fr] up to "stink bombs", or accusations orchestrated by "biased" media outlets and political enemies bent on discrediting him.
Sarkozy's spokeswoman, Nathalie Kosiusko-Morizet, dubbed the latest allegations [Fr] an "outrageous diversion" by Hollande's team in light of the upcoming elections.
Prosecutors have opened an inquiry to determine whether or not the document was a forgery, after Sarkozy began proceedings on Monday to sue the investigative website for "wilfully misleading the public".
'Serious but not unusual'
Philippe Broussard, the managing editor of L'Express magazine's investigation unit, told Al Jazeera that the number and severity of the accusations against Sarkozy were serious, but not unusual.
"There have been many past electoral campaigns facing serious allegations of the same nature," Broussard said. "They are not a novelty in French political life - regardless of the political party in question - particularly not during electoral campaign season."
He said that the 2012 campaign was no more tainted by scandalous accusations than those of 2002 or 1995.
John Heilbrunn, an associate professor at the Colorado School of Mines, who specialises in the study of corruption, said that the incentive to illegally finance campaigns was significant.
"[The accusations] are all coming from ongoing investigations into these affairs. There exist elements and names in these files that form the basis of these allegations. They are not being invented out of thin air."
- Philippe Broussard, L'Express
"These presidential campaigns cost millions and millions of euros," he said. "Where are the candidates going to raise that kind of money?"
These incentives are far from unique to France, he added, but said that the country's campaign financing laws are relatively strict.
Individual campaign contributions are restricted to 7,600 euros ($10,000) for parties and 4,600 euros ($6,000) for a candidate. Contributions from other countries are strictly prohibited.
Broussard argued that the practice of using illegal sources of funding was linked to past practices.
"For decades presidential candidates could receive money from corporations and individuals in return for political favours", Broussard said. "It seems like this system has continued, despite stricter campaign financing laws - just now illegally."
France only started to issue laws to control the funding of political parties and election campaigns in 1988. Critics say that policy bodies, however, have little real power, and that attempts to reform the laws have mostly been hot air.
Broussard added that it was important to note that, while all the accusations were still inconclusive, they were not purely based on rumours.
"They are all coming from ongoing investigations into these affairs. There exist elements and names in these files that form the basis of these allegations. They are not being invented out of thin air."
'Crisis of confidence'
Emmanuel Rivière, an opinion analyst at market research group TNS Sofrès, said that whether or not the accusations turned out to be substantiated, their presence in the media was causing a "crisis of confidence" between citizens and their elected officials.
He explained that the most important fall-out would not necessarily be directed at Sarkozy. and would not prevent him from being re-elected.
In 2002 former President Jacques Chirac was re-elected, despite also having been repeatedly accused of corruption.
Broussard said the most important effects of the allegations were the effects on political life. "It casts doubts over the integrity of the political class and their ability to govern as a whole," he said.
In a September 2011 survey conducted by TNS Sofrès, 72 per cent of respondents described elected officials and politicians as "more or less corrupt and dishonest", a record for the annual poll.
Rivière explained that the increase was, in part, due to the proliferation of independent online and 24 hour media sources, which allowed the allegations to reach wider audiences and build upon themselves quickly.
Séverine Tessier, spokesperson for the corruption-fighting association Anticor, also argued that the general indignation provoked by the accusations was tied to the fact that "the nature of power" had changed.
She said that, under Sarkozy, the barrier between private and public interest had been eroded in the public eye because of the incumbent's relationship with money.
"By associating himself with wealth, like when he celebrated his election at one of the poshest restaurants in Paris, Sarkozy crystallised the now unchecked relationship between politicians and businessmen."
When Sarkozy won the election in May 2007, he drew criticism from pundits and media by celebrating his inauguration [Fr] at one of France's most expensive restaurants, the Fouquet, where a single espresso will set you back seven euros ($9.20).
|Spotlight coverage of France's 2012 presidential elections
The fact that these scandals continue to fuel electoral campaigns, she explained, discredits French democracy at the expense of political engagement.
"There is a general loss of faith in the public sentiment," she said. "That is what we [as an organisation] are trying to fight."
Rivière explained that this disillusionment, coupled with frustration over high unemployment rates, manifests itself in high levels of abstention or votes for the National Front (FN), the far-right party of Marine Le Pen.
The FN won an unprecedented 18 per cent of the vote in the first round of the elections on April 22.
"A vote for the FN is a vote of sanction," he said. "It adds nothing to political life - it's simply a rejection of the political system."
Need for transparency
Julien Coll, a delegate for Transparency International France, an anti-corruption organisation based in Paris, argued that the current "crisis of confidence" is not symbolic of actual levels of corruption within the French political class.
"There is a sentiment that there are a lot of scandals, that everything and everyone is implicated", he said. "But part of the malaise stems from the fact that the fight against corruption is clearly not a priority for politicians."
He explained that politicians often promise to fight against corruption, but employ "empty laws" that do little to actually stem illicit practices.
Transparency International France believes that strengthening laws to prevent conflicts of interest and bolster the independence of the justice system should be the top two priorities for the winner of the election.
"Public affairs must be handled in a healthy and honest manner," he said. "Fixing the lack of overall transparency - starting with the finances of political parties - must one of the first priorities in the fight against corruption."
Follow Sophie Sportiche on Twitter: @slsport