Paris, France - Since May, there has been an almost daily stream of revelations about the campaign accounts of France's centre-right party, Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP) including fake invoices and unjustified expenses.
But over the past weeks, Nicolas Sarkozy's debt-ridden party hit another low as its senior figures began to accuse each other of mismanagement and misspending amid a fierce battle for party control.
"For now, the French right has no leaders, no ideas and no means," said Stephane Rozes, political analyst and president of Cap, a consultancy company that has advised both Sarkozy and current French President Francois Hollande in the past.
"The UMP is managed by a trustee of leaders who bear the least responsibility in this shipwreck, while those responsible for this situation are Jean-Francois Cope [former head of UMP] and Nicolas Sarkozy."
The scandal also bears another name: Bygmalion PR.
In May, the left-wing daily Liberation and the online news site Mediapart reported that this consultancy company had issued a series of fake invoices to cover up Sarkozy's presidential campaign overspending in 2012. Bygmalion is run by two close associates of Cope.
Interviewed on television, a tearful Jerome Lavrilleux, Cope's chief of staff and former deputy director of Sarkozy's campaign, admitted that there was a double billing system for events organised during Sarkozy's campaign to hide the real costs that were way above limits allowed by French electoral rules.
According to documents seized by investigators at Bygmalion headquarters, more than $23m of fake invoices were billed as UMP expenses, reports Mediapart.
Although Lavrilleux has said that neither Cope nor Sarkozy knew about this illegal billing, the scandal has cost Cope his position as leader of the party.
Since his resignation in late May, the reins of the UMP have been taken over by three former prime ministers - Francois Fillon, Alain Juppe, and Jean-Pierre Raffarin. Nicknamed the "triumvirat", they were appointed to lead the party until a new president is elected in autumn.
For now, the three men have to deal with the party's disastrous finances and their own personal ambitions.
"The triumvirat is in a delicate situation, because they're here to save the party and the future of the French right, and even they wonder whether they should restore the UMP to heal it or do a bleeding to make it disappear and create another party," said Madani Cheurfa, a political analyst at political research centre Cevipof.
We have just experienced two disasters: the defeat at the European elections and financial scandals. These events are putting the UMP in danger.
A financial audit requested by the trio revealed that UMP's debt amounts to over $100m as of June 30.
At a press conference, Juppe, a former prime minister and current mayor of Bordeaux, dismissed fears of bankruptcy, saying the party could make it until the 2017 presidential elections if running expenses are cut down by 20 percent.
Juppe also called on all senior figures to put an end to internal fighting and backstabbing.
"Enough with these allegations, accusations, and constant leaks," he said. "If the UMP is not capable of uniting to work together, the financial issues will be secondary."
But since the publication of the audit, new stink bombs explode nearly every day, hitting various party officials with alleged spending scandals involving aides, travels, phone calls, and holidays.
According to the French satirical weekly Le Canard Enchaine, former minister of justice and current European deputy, Rachida Dati, allegedly had the UMP pay for $13,500 for her phone bills, $12,100 for her train tickets and $5,380 for her air travel in 2013.
As soon as the news was reported, she hit back at Fillon, tweeting that he "should be transparent on his expenses and his aides".
Fillon had then to explain himself over a fresh leak, revealing that the UMP spent almost $45,750 on helicopter flights and private jet tours for him.
Already battered by the Bygmalion scandal, Cope is also accused of having the party pay for $32,300 for trips made by Nadine Cope, his wife and political aide. Another former head of UMP, Xavier Bertrand, was for his part accused of having had the UMP pay for his family's New Year's vacation, allegations he countered by producing the actual receipt for his holidays.
"No one understands anything. We hear something new every five minutes," said Cheurfa.
"It feels like everyone is improvising based on leaks."
And the infighting cripples the party at the worst time, right after the French extreme right party, the Front National, won a historic 25 percent of votes at the EU parliamentary elections. "We have just experienced two disasters: the defeat at the European elections and financial scandals. These events are putting the UMP in danger," said Fillon. "What is at stake today is not which personality will win, which clique will profit from this crisis. What is at stake today is the existence of a political family."
With the UMP on the brink of collapse and its senior figures climbing at each other throats, the party's triumvirat is now trying to stop the witch-hunt by finding the identity of the "deep throat" who is leaking information to the press.
Cases galore for Sarkozy
The leaks have also hurt the most prominent member of the party: Sarkozy. Aside Cope, no one has been more hit by the Bygmalion scandal and its after effects than Sarkozy. According to the daily newspaper Le Parisien, the former president has recently said: "The UMP is a sh*t fan, you get inside the room and you get splattered."
Already under judicial scrutiny for a variety of cases (Karachi, Tapie, Bettencourt), Sarkozy is now under formal investigation for corruption and misuse of influence. On July 1, he was held for 15 hours under custody for allegedly trying to obtain legal information from French judges about cases against him.
One cannot believe for a second that Sarkozy or Cope were kept away from what was happening at the UMP.
Right after his release, he appeared on French television to deny all implication in the Bygmalion case: "As far as my campaign is concerned, I'm saying this to everyone who's supported me, there has never been a double billing system," he said. "This alleged hiding of 17 million [euros] is crazy."
His garde a vue (police custody), a first for a former head of state in France, and the UMP-Bygmalion scandal may very well torpedo Sarkozy's plans to make a political comeback ahead of the 2017 presidential election. "It makes a new bid for the French presidency quite complicated," said Emmanuel Riviere, director of polling at TNS Sofres. "What's at the heart of the UMP scandal is his campaign in 2012, and his denial is a line of defence that is fragile. It has its limits."
For Riviere, Sarkozy has been "relatively stainless" in various investigations, such as the Karachi scandal or the Bettencourt case, but "this time, the problem comes from the inside of the machine, there is no doubt about what's being investigated and we're talking about a lot of money, a 40 million euro [$54m] campaign". "One cannot believe for a second that Sarkozy or Cope were kept away from what was happening at the UMP," added Rozes.
Still, the former president remains quite popular in France. According to the latest survey by the Ifop polling institute, 48 percent still have a positive opinion of Sarkozy, while Juppe scores 62 percent and Fillon 57 percent.
As for UMP supporters, 78 percent would like to see Sarkozy run for president in 2017, and 68 percent want to have him back as the head of the party. At the party's special congress in late November, UMP members will elect their new president. But several questions remain open: Will Nicolas Sarkozy run for the UMP presidency? Will he run for the French presidency in 2017?
Sarkozy said he will announce his decision by the end of the summer, and analysts say the game for the 2017 presidency remains wide open at the UMP, especially because of Sarkozy's embroilment in a few judicial cases.
"There is the question of the 'Berlusconisation' of Nicolas Sarkozy," said Rozes.
"The country is looking for people who are able to find solutions to the crisis and to France's current situation. Never mind how much Nicolas Sarkozy says he's a victim, that he's done nothing wrong, at the moment, he represents problems. And anyone who seems to bring problems to the country has no political future."
Source: Al Jazeera