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Nicolas Sarkozy and the Weakness of Liberal Democracy

Allegations that the former French president accepted millions from Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi are uncomfortably relevant in the Trump era.

Olivier Laban-Mattei/AFP/Getty Images

Some politicians engage in financially corrupt practices out of personal greed; others out of desperation to succeed in elections, where high expenditure on campaigns increasingly affects outcome. But in today’s “advanced capitalist” countries, where the law of the market is championed by businesspeople and economic policymakers alike, corruption can also come to seem like the logical extension of free enterprise.

Last week, former French President Nicolas Sarkozy was placed under formal investigation following two days of questioning in the Paris suburb of Nanterre. He and close colleagues are accused of receiving 50 million Euros from Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi in his successful 2007 presidential campaign, five million of which allegedly arrived at the Ministry of the Interior in suitcases stuffed with banknotes.

They are the most potentially damaging—and certainly the most dramatic— accusations against any former French president, not least because of the implication that the receipt of such funds might have influenced President Sarkozy’s policy towards Libya and the Qaddafi regime.

In December 2007, Sarkozy became the first French President for 34 years to officially host the Libyan head of state, welcoming him to Paris with much fanfare. In March 2011, Sarkozy also became the first foreign head of state to recognize the Libyan rebels as the country’s legitimate leaders, and later in 2011 was a strong supporter of NATO-led air strikes which contributed to the end of Qadaffi’s rule. Qaddafi was killed in October 2011.

As relations deteriorated in 2011, Qaddafi’s son, Saif al-Islam, told journalists Sarkozy should repay funds Libya had donated to the presidential candidate’s campaign in 2007—a statement Sarkozy’s supporters still interpret as a sign the corruption allegations are merely the Qaddafi camp’s attempts to take revenge on Sarkozy for his change of heart toward the regime.

A lawyer himself, Sarkozy appeared on television channel TF1 for 25 minutes last Thursday, insisting that he had “never seen a cent of funding” from Libya, that there was no evidence for the accusations, that the Qaddafi family and entourage were “a band of killers,” and that he would “make sure my honor triumphs.” It was a strong performance and his interviewer gave him virtually free reign.

But the investigative news service Médiapart, one of the main organizations behind the allegations in the first place, argue there is plenty of evidence against Sarkozy and also against close associates. The newspaper Le Monde says the same. Former Minister of the Interior Claude Guéant is under investigation for fraud in connection with the allegations, following a payment of 500,000 euros into his bank account, which he says came from the sale of two paintings. Brice Hortefeux, another close ally and with several former ministerial portfolios, was also questioned earlier this week as part of the investigation. In the wake of his own questioning, Sarkozy is not allowed to have any contact with either Guéant or Hortefeux.

He is also forbidden contact with Alexandre Djourhi, a businessman currently staying in the UK and subject to a European Arrest Warrant for extradition to France. Djourhri is accused, among other things, of money laundering; he allegedly sold a property in the south of France for a hugely inflated sum to a Libyan investment fund, run by Bashir Saleh, who was also Gaddafi’s chief of staff. Djourhi is contesting the extradition order and is now on bail.

The dramatis personae of this investigation are thus numerous, high-profile, monied and multi-national. With the mingling of fame and fortune, of politics, money and diplomacy, not to mention armed intervention in another country via NATO, it could have been (and no doubt will be) the plot of a successful movie.

But of course French politics is no stranger to allegations of and indeed convictions for financial corruption. Sarkozy’s formal investigation comes close on the heels of the scuppering of centre-right candidate François Fillon’s 2017 presidential campaign by the satirical and investigative newspaper Le Canard enchaîné.

According to the paper, Fillon paid hundreds of thousands of euros of public funds to his wife Penelope for parliamentary assistance she had not carried out, paid his sons for “legal advice” before they were qualified lawyers, and accepted gifts of expensive suits and watches. Separately, a Lebanese businessman reportedly paid Fillon $50,000 to be introduced to Vladimir Putin.

Far-right leader Marine Le Pen, meanwhile—a European parliament member who went through to the second round of the 2017 election against President Macron—was later charged with using European Union money to pay Front National aides.

In fact, French politics has a long history of high-profile politicians embroiled in financial scandals or suspicions thereof. Most notorious, perhaps, was President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing’s acceptance of diamonds from the Central African Republic dictator Jean-Bédel Bokassa in 1973. Le Canard enchaîné broke the story after France had helped topple the dictator and shortly before presidential elections in 1981, the revelations boosting Socialist François Mitterrand’s campaign.

President Jacques Chirac was also, many years after the events, sentenced to a two-year suspended sentence for creating fake jobs while Mayor of Paris between 1977 and 1995, in order to secure funds for his party. The Socialist Party’s “Urba affair” in the 1980s involved establishing a group of companies to cover up and redirect kick-backs on public works contracts.

Many other countries have seen financial wrongdoing by politicians, of course. Numerous British Members of Parliament were convicted in 2009 and 2010 of inflating their expenses—memorably with one claimant buying an ornamental duck house and another having his moat cleaned on taxpayers’ dime. More recently, the Trump presidency has been dogged by conflict-of-interest and profiteering accusations.  

Nicolas Sarkozy has yet to appear in court, and indeed may never do so. But the mingling of business, politics, and unsavory foreign regimes in the Libya-Sarkozy affair should raise questions for advanced capitalist democracies beyond those of tawdry expense scandals or luxury gifts.  

If the accusations against Sarkozy prove to be true, even in part, it will mean the 2007 successful presidential candidate, who went out of his way to draw on close contacts among the rich and powerful in business, entertainment, and media, and campaigned in part on a willingness to bring France closer toward the pro-growth market economy known as the “Anglo-Saxon model,” may also have applied the full force of the market to politics and even foreign policy as well. Considering ever-more-numerous reports of President Trump’s foreign government business entanglements, the money-policy connection on both sides of the Atlantic seems increasingly relevant.

As reflected in the cinema as well as in NGO-compiled indices, citizens of advanced capitalist democracies are accustomed to thinking of corruption as a disease of developing countries. Those watching the Sarkozy affair in coming months may find themselves wondering, however, whether corruption might also be interpreted as the application of the neoliberal economic approach to the structures of liberal democracy.