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SARKOZY

Scandals hit candidates as polling day looms

French presidential frontrunner Francois Hollande headed into the last round of his battle with Nicolas Sarkozy on Sunday, with both candidates threatened by the shadow of scandal.

Dominique Strauss Kahn
WTO

Socialist challenger Hollande is the favourite to win next week’s vote, but his campaign was shaken over the weekend by a new episode in the saga of his party’s ties to disgraced former IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn.

On Saturday, Socialist lawmaker Julien Dray invited Hollande’s campaign director Pierre Moscovici, communications director Manuel Valls and former partner Segolene Royal to a drinks party to celebrate his birthday.

But he did not warn them he had also invited Strauss-Kahn to attend the bash, held at a popular disco bar on the notorious Rue St Denis in Paris, a street which has historically been associated with prostitution.

Royal was furious when she learned that Strauss-Kahn was on the guest list, and stormed off without meeting him, but the news embarrassed the campaign and forced Hollande to publicly stress Strauss-Kahn’s pariah status.

“He no longer has a role in political life and thus should not be part of a campaign nor in any images that could potentially lead people to believe he’s coming back,” Hollande said, in a television interview.

Strauss-Kahn was once expected to be the Socialist candidate but became a toxic figure last year when he was accused of sexual assault in New York and is now under investigation in France over alleged ties to a vice ring.

Royal, who was the defeated Socialist candidate in the 2007 race and has had four children with Hollande, expressed anger over the invitation.

“It’s lucky that I didn’t find myself face-to-face with him!” she said. “I left because it is out of the question for me to meet Dominique Strauss-Kahn, if only out of concern for the rights and respect due to women.”

Valls, a party moderniser who has been tipped to become a senior minister in any Hollande-led government, refused to comment on the event and insisted it had no relevance to the campaign nor to voters’ interests.

But Sarkozy’s camp — which is wooing the 6.4 million voters who backed the far-right’s Marine Le Pen in the first round vote last week — lost no time in seizing on the incident to increase the left’s embarrassment.

Sarkozy spokeswoman Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet joked about the Rue St Denis address, with its louche associations, adding: “You couldn’t make it up.”

The new mini-scandal erupted as an opinion poll by the LH2 institute forecast that Hollande would win the May 6 run-off by 54 percent of the vote to Sarkozy’s 46, a smaller gap than in LH2’s last estimate.

Another survey, carried out by Ipsos for France Television, Radio France and Le Monde, predicted Hollande would win with 53 percent, down one point from the previous survey, against 47 percent for Sarkozy, up one point.

The right-wing president meanwhile faced controversy of his own.

On Saturday, investigative news website Mediapart published what it said was a copy of an internal Libyan regime document recording an alleged 2006 illegal funding deal between Tripoli and Sarkozy’s 2007 campaign.

According to the note, which Mediapart claims to have obtained from former regime figures ousted last year in the revolt against Qaddhafi’s rule, Tripoli agreed to pay Sarkozy’s 2007 campaign €50 million ($66 million).

“It’s despicable. It’s a forgery. Mediapart is well used to dishonesty. It’s an agency in the service of the left,” Sarkozy declared in an interview with Canal+ television, angrily dismissing the claim.

And the man to whom the memo was supposedly addressed — Bashir Saleh, Qaddhafi’s former chief of staff and head of Libya’s $40 billion sovereign wealth fund — denied ever receiving such a communication.

Saleh now lives in France, and his lawyer Pierre Haik sent AFP a statement expressing “grave reservations” over the authenticity of the note.

Speaking to AFP from his exile in Doha, the capital of Qatar, Libya’s former foreign intelligence chief Moussa Koussa branded the note a fake.

“All these allegations are false,” he said.

Socialist Arnaud Montebourg, who came third in the party’s primary last year, said “the only response is to immediately launch an investigation.”

He said in a televised debate that if the allegations were verified, it could help explain how “Colonel Qaddhafi came back into favour… and was welcomed in Paris with great pomp.”

Both candidates have a number of major rallies planned for the final week of campaigning, and will face each other on Wednesday in a televised debate that could prove to be Sarkozy’s last chance for a breakthrough.

SARKOZY

Corruption trial begins for France’s ex president Sarkozy

Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy goes on trial on Monday on charges of trying to bribe a judge, in what could be a humiliating postscript to a political career tainted by a litany of legal investigations.

Corruption trial begins for France's ex president Sarkozy
Nicolas Sarkozy. Photo: AFP

Though he is not the first modern head of state in the dock – his predecessor and political mentor Jacques Chirac was convicted of embezzlement – Sarkozy is the first to face corruption charges.

He fought furiously over the past six years to have the case thrown out, and has denounced “a scandal that will go down in history”.

“I am not a crook,” the 65-year-old, whose combative style has made him one of France's most popular rightwing politicians, told BFM TV this month.

Prosecutors say Sarkozy promised the judge a plush job in Monaco in exchange for inside information on an inquiry into claims that Sarkozy accepted illicit payments from L'Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt for his 2007 presidential campaign.

Their case rests in large part on wiretaps of phone conversations between Sarkozy and his longtime lawyer Thierry Herzog, which judges authorised as prosecutors also looked into suspected Libyan financing of Sarkozy's 2007 campaign.

That inquiry is still underway, though Sarkozy caught a break this month when his main accuser, the French-Lebanese businessman Ziad Takieddine, suddenly retracted his claim of delivering millions of euros in cash from Libyan dictator Moamer Kadhafi.

Sarkozy and Herzog have assailed the taps on their phones as a breach of client-attorney privilege, but in 2016 a top court upheld their use as evidence.

Charged with bribery and influence peddling, Sarkozy risks a prison sentence of up to 10 years and a maximum fine of €1 million.

Herzog, a leading member of the Paris bar, faces the same charges as well as violation of professional secrecy. The trial is expected to last three weeks.

'A boost'

Investigators discovered that Sarkozy used an alias – Paul Bismuth – to buy a private phone for conversing secretly with his lawyer.

On around a dozen occasions, they discussed reaching out to a top French judge, Gilbert Azibert, a general counsel at the Cour de Cassation, France's top appeals court for criminal and civil cases.

Prosecutors say Azibert, who is also on trial, was tasked with trying to obtain information from the Cour de Cassation lawyer in charge of the Bettencourt inquiry, and to induce him to seek a verdict in Sarkozy's favour.

In exchange, Sarkozy would use his extensive contacts to give “a boost” to Azibert's efforts to secure the cushy Monaco post.

“He's been working on it,” Herzog tells Sarkozy in a call from early 2014.
Azibert was already considered a leading candidate for the job, but “if you give him a boost, it's always better,” Herzog says in another.

“I'll make him move up,” Sarkozy tells Herzog, according to the indictment by prosecutors, who compared his actions to those of a “seasoned offender”.

But later, Sarkozy tells his lawyer that he would not “approach” the  Monaco authorities on Azibert's behalf — a sign, according to prosecutors, that the two men had been tipped off about the wiretaps.

“Mr Azibert never got any post in Monaco,” Sarkozy told BFM television this month – though under French law, just an offer or promise can constitute corruption.

Still in limelight

Sarkozy, a lawyer by training, has long accused the French judiciary of waging a vendetta against him, not least because of his attempts to limit judges' powers and criticism that they are too soft on delinquents.

He will again be back in court in March 2021 along with 13 other people over claims of campaign finance violations during his unsuccessful 2012 re-election bid.

Prosecutors accuse Sarkozy's team of using a fake-invoices scheme orchestrated by the public relations firm Bygmalion to spend nearly €43 million on the lavish run – nearly twice the legal limit.

The long-running legal travails hindered his comeback bid for the 2017 presidential vote, losing out as the rightwing nominee to his former prime minister François Fillon.

Yet like other former French presidents, Sarkozy has surfed a wave of popularity since announcing his retirement from politics in 2018, pressing the flesh with enthusiastic crowds at his public appearances.

Lines of fans queued over the summer to have him sign his latest memoirs, “The Time of Storms”, which topped best-seller lists for weeks.

SEE ALSO: Sarkozy accused of racism after 'monkey' comment

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