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Opinion

Sarkozy: Victim of witch-hunt?

After Chirac and Strauss-Kahn, Sarkozy is the latest French politician embroiled in a scandal.

Last updated: 03 Jul 2014 10:19
Agnes Poirier

Agnes Poirier is the UK editor for the French political weekly MARIANNE, and a political commentator for the British, American, Canadian, French and Italian press, and a regular contributor to the BBC, Sky News, and Al Jazeera. She is the author of 'Touche, A French woman's take on the English'
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Sarkozy may have underestimated the French judiciary's thirst for independence, writes Poirier [AFP]

When former French President Nicolas Sarkozy left home early in the morning on July 1 to meet the two judges, Patricia Simon and Claire Thepaut, he told his wife Carla Bruni that he'd just be "a few hours". But instead of being heard as a simple witness, he was formally taken into police custody for questioning, and Sarkozy was interrogated for 15 hours. This is a historic first for a French president since the beginning of the Fifth Republic founded by Charles de Gaulle in 1958.

Sarkozy may have been free to go back home just after midnight but he left the judges' office under formal investigation for active abuse of power and influence peddling which, if proven - and we're a long way away from this - carries up to a 10-year imprisonment sentence.

Sarkozy has complained for months that a witch-hunt was under way.

"I'm not paranoid but the least we can say is that I'm under intense scrutiny!" he's reported to have declared.

He never thought possible though that judges would dare take him into custody, "like a common drug dealer", reported Le Parisien: "Nicolas Sarkozy thought that they would never do this to a former interior minister."

Well, they just did.

People in high places

Even his mentor in politics, former French President Jacques Chirac, was found guilty of embezzlement and illegal party funding in 2011, 20 years or so after the facts. He was condemned to a two-year suspended prison sentence, but was never taken into police custody for questioning. A move considered, until July 1, as too humiliating for a former head of state.

France is currently experiencing two parallel phenomena. First of all, a freer and more efficient judiciary does not shy away any more from investigating people in high places; and one could argue that a former president is, symbolically, the highest and most powerful man in France (the president in exercise being immune from prosecution).

Perhaps the shockwaves felt throughout French society by the Dominique Strauss-Kahn case in 2011 can partly explain French judges' pugnacity and audacity today. The presidential hopeful and head of the IMF may have been arrested in a foreign land with its own judicial intricacies, however, Dominique Strauss-Kahn's arrest ... traumatised a country more used to discreet and hushed dealings.

Perhaps the shock waves felt throughout French society by the Dominique Strauss-Kahn (DSK) case in 2011 can partly explain French judges' pugnacity and audacity today. The presidential hopeful and head of the IMF may have been arrested in a foreign land with its own judicial intricacies, but his detention, his being paraded hand-cuffed in front of the world's media, and his two-month house arrest until the case collapsed, traumatised a country more used to discreet and hushed dealings.

In many ways, the DSK case liberated minds. French women and feminists started questioning the French culture of tolerance towards male chauvinism, while many French judges felt a taboo had been broken. Indeed, a few months later, new charges were brought against Strauss-Kahn, this time in France. After the Sofitel incident in New York, there came the "Carlton scandal", with a cohort of pimps and scantily clad women.

At the same moment, in September 2011, Chirac's suspended sentence for illegal party funding while he was mayor of Paris between 1977 and 1995 was felt as another shock decision, and a historical one for France.

Heightened politicisation

Empowered and energised no doubt, French judges also suffered, under the Sarkozy presidency's (2007-2012) heightened politicisation. A particularly antagonising and divisive figure, Sarkozy made key appointments in the judiciary as soon as he was elected in 2007.

Key prosecutors such as Philippe Courroye were known to be very close to the president. In response, and to counteract executive meddling in the judiciary, many judges took to leaking confidential details of ongoing investigations to the press. This enhanced resentment on both sides.

Today, Claire Thepaut, one of the judges in charge of the Sarkozy dossier, is accused by his political allies of having belonged to the left-leaning judges' trade union and to be politically biased against the former president. Sarkozy's party even blamed the Elysees Palace, pointing to the timing of the scandal. Sarkozy had indeed prepared to make his political comeback in September to try and give its ailing party, mired in an illegal funding scandal of its own, some renewed vigour and credibility.

It looks as if Sarkozy will need to wait for the conclusion of this new investigation, and to be cleared from all charges, before attempting to go back to the centre stage of French politics. There is plenty of time before the next presidential elections in 2017, and the former French president is known for his irrepressible energy and ability to bounce back, even if Sarkozy is linked to six other ongoing investigations. If nothing else, Sarkozy may have made one mistake: He underestimated the French judiciary's thirst for independence.

Agnes Poirier is the UK editor for the French political weekly MARIANNE, and a political commentator for the British, American, Canadian, French and Italian press, and a regular contributor to the BBC, Sky News, and Al Jazeera. She is the author of 'Touche, A French woman's take on the English'

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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