Both Sarkozy and Hollande are victims of the French culture of scandal

Going down together? EPA/Ian Langsdon

In late February 2014, it was discovered that Nicolas Sarkozy’s close aide during his presidency, Patrick Buisson, had secretly recorded hundreds of hours of conversations with the then-president and others. Some of the recordings were posted online by the right-wing website Atlantico, which was duly ordered to remove them on 14 March. There was little incriminating evidence in the tapes that have been heard, but only a tiny fraction of what Buisson recorded has made it into the public domain (so far).

Buisson’s tapes, however, are only the tip of the iceberg. Sarkozy is also under investigation over a plethora of other matters; his phones have been tapped for a year on the order of examining judges, and the scandals keep piling up.

Was he involved in fraud to fund the then prime minister Edouard Balladur’s presidential bid in 1995? Did he help his friend, the roguish businessman Bernard Tapie, get several hundred million euros from the state in a dodgy compensation deal? Did he defraud the l'Oréal heiress, Liliane Bettencourt, of some of her fortune? Did he take millions from Gaddafi to fund his 2007 campaign? Each of these allegations is so serious it could at the very least make Sarkozy ineligible to stand for the presidency again.

Is this simply the slow grind of the wheels of justice, or are the governing left somehow behind it? A lot of people think so. On 10 March, the justice minister, Christiane Taubira, declared she had only just heard about the phone tapping. The next day, the prime minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, said that wasn’t quite what she had meant; Taubira later said she had got her dates mixed up.

In an announcement on Saturday 15 March, the French president, François Hollande, failed to explain when he knew about the bugging of Sarkozy, and it is clear that the public do not trust him any more than they do Taubira. The whole affair looks suspiciously like a concerted attempt to wreck the chances of the left’s most likely challenger in 2017. But if Sarkozy does survive these attacks (and one wonders, why so many hundreds of hours of phone tapping? Perhaps they could not find anything …), it may turn out the left have only enhanced his prospects – and diminished their own.

But what does all this tell us about the Fifth Republic? Scandals like this one date back forever in French politics, are an integral part of how the republic functions. Since the 1930s, through the resistance years, decolonisation, and the advent of the Fifth Republic, backroom plots and scandals have been as important to France’s fortunes as democracy and modernisation themselves.

Friends in high places

This is in part because of the friendships, enmities and shifting ideological allegiances of the key players, and partly because of the richness of the anti-democratic traditions on the far left and the far right. That is not to say that France’s dominant ideologies, hard right nationalist and left-wing socialist, say, are always pitted against one another; because of the deeply individualist nature of political commitment and association in France, things are often to the contrary.

Many activists of all political colours were at school or university together, or were in the Resistance together. Socialist president François Mitterrand had old friends who had been active collaborators with the Vichy regime and the Nazis. These highly complex webs of intrigue and counter-intrigue are the secret history of the Fifth Republic. The fact that the solitary and strange Patrick Buisson, Sarkozy’s advisor and now apparent mole, came from the far right is not the central interest here. More important is that he was able to become so influential, a key figure in the community of intellectuals and think tankers who advise political leaders.

Moving around the political spectrum is commonplace in French politics. Prime minister Lionel Jospin was for years a committed Trotskyite, even after he had joined the mainstream Socialist party and become one of Mitterrand’s closest collaborators. Many centre-right politicians, meanwhile, have old connections to the hard right, and at various levels of French politics there are links to organised crime; there is also France’s deep and active tradition of fascism. That is part of the culture informing much of French politics, particularly on the right and far right.

How does this heritage affect politics now? The people involved in the intrigues after the war and in Algeria have gradually been replaced by another generation of plotters, in large part because the system encourages their behaviour. Swathes of highly sensitive information about individuals can be gathered from the secret services or police and other sources – particularly the ministry of the interior, a government post avidly sought by schemers. A mere glance at the number of political scandals that have broken over the years suggests that they are not just collisions of bad behaviour and coincidence, but the work of old-boy networks, coteries, and conspiracies that are mobilised to maximum effect when required.

Is it really a coincidence that Dominique Strauss-Kahn was so spectacularly brought down just before he ran for the presidency, when significant insiders had apparently known for years that he was utterly unable, as it were, to rein in his passions? Many suspected Sarkozy of involvement somewhere in DSK’s downfall. Equally, in the current bugging case, is it insignificant that Sarkozy is the only potential candidate today who could decisively unite the right and beat Hollande in 2017 (or could have)? The judicious and clinical use of scandal is an extremely profitable and destructive force in French politics.

The long-term effect of all this is not good. The internet, 24-hour news, an inquisitorial class of (often very left-leaning) magistrates, a lack of public reverence for politicians who continue to behave as if they’re a class apart. And all the time the social and political elites demand their right to privacy, deeply entrenched in French politics as a privilege of the famous, when there is clearly no guarantee of privacy whatsoever.

These forces are pulling the French Fifth Republic towards a serious crisis. The left are not profiting from the right’s current woes (the general secretary of the centre-right UMP is also under investigation for possibly swindling his own party). The resulting general view is that the whole political class, left and right, is rotten to the core (“tous pourris”).

This is now a lot worse than arrogant UK Tories using the public purse to have their moats cleaned. France is now seeing widespread political disaffection, dramatic growth in support for the far-right National Front (though they too regularly endure their own scandals), and Hollande’s government is regarded by most people as beyond useless. The scandal-riven republic seems to be seriously malfunctioning.