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Ex-French president Sarkozy in spotlight over former wife’s job

French newspaper Le Canard Enchaine revealed on Wednesday that the former wife of ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy was paid as a parliamentary assistant in 2002, but cast doubt on whether she had worked to justify her salary.

Ex-French president Sarkozy in spotlight over former wife's job
Nicolas Sarkozy with his ex wife Cecilia. Photo: AFP

The allegations, which echo those made in 2017 against the wife of former prime minister Francois Fillon, were denied by a source close to Sarkozy who ruled out any wrongdoing.

The investigative weekly newspaper said Cecilia Sarkozy was employed as an assistant to the woman who stood in for Sarkozy in parliament from 2002 when he was promoted to interior minister.

Cecilia took home nearly €3,100 a month in income for the part-time job, the report said, citing payslips.

“Not an article, no report, not one of the many books devoted to the former first lady mentions her work as a parliamentary assistant,” the weekly wrote.

A source close to Sarkozy confirmed to AFP that Cecilia was employed as an assistant to his parliamentary replacement in 2002-2003, but said that her role in her husband's political career was a “matter of public knowledge”.

She was known to have a position advising Sarkozy at the interior ministry and worked on his successful presidential campaign in 2007.

But the report quoted Cecilia telling a TV interviewer in 2002: “I am not paid, the work I do with my husband is voluntary.”

Sarkozy, a conservative, rose from being mayor for the affluent western Parisian suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine and MP for the area to become interior minister and then president from 2007 to 2012.

Since leaving office after a single term, he has been embroiled in investigations into illegal campaign financing, attempts to influence the judiciary, and taking money from former Libyan dictator Moamer Kadhafi.

He denies all the allegations.

The Canard Enchaine uncovered a scandal involving a fake parliamentary job that erupted a few months before the last presidential election in 2017.

It revealed that long-time Sarkozy ally Fillon had employed his wife Penelope as his parliamentary assistant from 1998 to 2013 without her carrying out duties to justify her salary.

The couple were convicted in June for misusing public funds and handed prison sentences, which they have appealed.

At the time of the scandal in 2017, Fillon and his allies sought to justify his wife's job by saying such practices were common within parliament at the time.

Cecilia Sarkozy, a former model, divorced Sarkozy in October 2007 shortly after he became president and married advertising executive Richard Attias, her third husband.

He too has since married again, to the French-Italian singer and modem Carla Bruni.

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FRANCE EXPLAINED

Can France’s Constitution be changed to add the right to abortion?

In the wake of the American Supreme Court's decision to end abortion rights for women in the US, French politicians from the centre and the left say they will move to have the right to terminate pregnancy enshrined in France's Constitution - so how easy is it to amend the Constitution in France?

Can France's Constitution be changed to add the right to abortion?

France’s first Constitution came into force in 1791, written by the French Revolutionaries and promising liberté, egalité and fraternité.

Those values are still very much in evidence in France today (in fact they’re carved into every public building) but in 1791 medicine involved bleeding, social networks meant gossiping with your neighbours over the wall and wigs made out of horsehair were very fashionable – in short, things change.

And the French constitution changes with them.

In fact, even talking about ‘the’ constitution is a little misleading, since France has had 15 different constitutions between the French Revolution of 1789 and the adoption of the current constitution in 1958 – the birth of the Fifth Republic.

Since 1958, there have also been 24 revisions to the constitution. Introducing it, then-President Charles du Gaulle said “the rest is a matter for men,” (we’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he meant people, since women did have the vote by then) in other words, he envisaged that it would be revised when necessary.

So the short answer is that constitutional change in France is possible – and there is significant precedent for it – but there are several steps involved. 

What does it take to change the Constitution?

Changing the constitution in France requires Presidential approval, plus the approval of both houses of parliament (the Assemblée nationale and the Senate) and then the approval of the final text by a three-fifths majority of two parliaments.

The other option is a referendum, but only after the two assemblies have voted in favour.

In short, it needs to be an issue that has wide and cross-party support.

Articles 11 and 89 of the French constitution cover changes.

Article 11 allows for a constitutional referendum, which is a tool that is intended to give the people decisive power in legislative matters. A high-profile example of this is when former French President Charles de Gaulle employed Article 11 to to introduce the appointment of the president by direct universal suffrage in 1962, which modified then-Article 6 of the constitution. However, this method of changing the constitution is controversial, and can technically only be done for specific themes: the organisation of public authorities, economic and social reforms, or to ratify international treaties. Technically it does not require the referendum to first pass through parliament.

What did previous reforms cover?

Looking at the reforms in the last 60 years, the scope has been pretty wide.

The French Constitution was substantially amended to “take account of these new developments, needs, ideas, and values.” The goal of these amendments was to better “define and control the power of the executive, to increase the powers of Parliament, and to better assure the protection of fundamental rights.”

About 47 articles were amended or drafted, and some new provisions came into force immediately, such as the limitation to two consecutive presidential terms. 

Examples range from the 2000 Constitutional referendum where French people voted to shorten the presidential term from seven years to five years; the 2007 constitutional amendment to abolish the death penalty, and several amendments to adapt the French constitution to make it compatible with EU treaties such as the Maastricht and Lisbon treaties. 

Is a constitutional change more powerful than a law?

The most recent call for change – sparked by events in America – is to add the right to abortion into the constitution.

The right to abortion in France is protected by the “Veil law,” which was passed in 1975, so is there a benefit to adding it to the constitution as well?

Simply being a law does not give a definitive and irrevocable right to abortion in France and the law can be changed – parliament recently elongated the legal time limit for performing an abortion up to 14 weeks, which shows that under different circumstances lawmakers would be free to remove these provisions and chip away at the “Veil law.”

READ MORE: EXPLAINED: What is the law on abortion in France?

If a majority of deputés agreed on a text banning abortion it could become law (although there are other procedural steps to pass through and such a decision would be challenged in the courts). Whereas, as outlined above, changing a constitutional right requires a much broader consensus from across the political spectrum.

In short, enshrining the right in the constitution would provide further protection for the right in the event of a future government that is anti-abortion – Marine Le Pen, who came second in the recent residential election has always been very vague on whether she supports the right to abortion, while many in her party are openly anti-abortion.

Why has France had so many constitutions?

The simple answer is that France’s many constitutions have reflected the shift between authoritarianism and republicanism throughout French history.

France is currently on its Fifth Republic, and its history since the French Revolution has also involved several periods of restoration of the monarchy and a brief period under an Emperor – all of these different regimes have required their own constitution.

READ MORE: Explained: What is the French Fifth Republic?

During the tumultuous revolutionary period, France had several constitutions, culminating in “Constitution of the Year XII,” which established the First French Empire. When the monarchy was restored, a new constitution codified the attempt to establish a constitutional monarchy.

France’s current constitution ushered in the Fifth Republic, largely at the behest of General Charles de Gaulle who was called to power during the May 1958 political crisis. One of the defining characteristics of the Fifth Republic is that it is a democracy, though the executive (the president) holds a significant amount of power.

So far, the Fifth Republic’s constitution has lasted 64 years, and should the Fifth Republic last until 2028, it will be the longest Republic – even longer than the Third Republic which endured from 1870 to 1940.

Could France have a new constitution in the future?

It is very possible. Former left-wing presidential candidate, Jean-Luc Mélenchon has proposed a Sixth Republic, which, according to France 24, would involve “proportional representation to make parliament more representative; giving citizens the power to initiate legislation and referendums, and to revoke their representatives; and scrapping special powers that currently give France’s executive right to pass legislation without parliamentary approval.” 

Mélenchon failed in his 2022 presidential bid however, so the Fifth Republic is still – for the moment – on course to beat that longevity record.

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