The relationship between Sarkozy and Gaddafi fits the pattern of the old mafia joke: “You’re my friend. I kill you for nothing.”
Nicolas Sarkozy: Crime and Punishment?
by Gilbert Doctorow, Ph.D.
During last week, two news items jostled for attention on the front pages of the mainstream newspapers and on the news bulletins of the main television channels of the Old Continent, including Euronews. One was the Skrypal “nerve agent attack” and Theresa May’s attempts to find support among the EU leaders for a common stand against Russia as perpetrator. The other was the arrest and questioning of former French President Nicolas Sarkozy over allegations that he took 50 million euros in cash from Libyan leader Muamar Gaddafi in 2007 for the election campaign that won him the presidency.
The Skrypal story of “the Russians did it” had its day in court in Brussels on Thursday and Friday during the summit of EU leaders that constitutes the EU’s chief executive body, the European Council. The deliberations ended in verbal support for May: the EU said it was recalling its ambassador to Moscow for 4 weeks of consultations. As EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker explained at a press conference, the EU faces important challenges which require active coordination with Russia, so that channels of communication must remain open.
Yesterday we learned of the orders to expel 4 Russian diplomats each from Germany, Poland and France; three Russian diplomats each from the Czech Republic and Lithuania; two Russian diplomats each from Denmark, Italy, The Netherlands; one diplomat each from Latvia, Estonia, Romania, Finland, Sweden and Ireland. This demarche is called an act of solidarity with the UK over the Skrypal case. However, these flea bites could be better described as the EU response to Vladimir Putin’s overwhelming victory in the presidential elections of 18 March which concerns all EU states far more directly than a patently fake incident involving the Brexiting United Kingdom. Following the predictable Russian symmetrical measures that we may anticipate in a couple of days, the Skrypal case is likely to disappear from the headline news for months, until the results of the forensic investigation into the poisoning of the ex-spy are completed.
By contrast, at week’s end, the story about Sarkozy’s arrest and 23 hour interrogation by judicial police over the course of two days was just gaining traction, with French media in particular split down the middle over whether an indictment and trial is warranted.
Unlike so many of the issues we deal with on these pages, the Sarkozy case has brought out splits in the governing elites of France and of Europe more generally. The result is that a great deal of information has been released into the public domain for us all to sift. For this essay, I have consulted mainly The Guardian, The Daily Mail, Le Figaro and Le Monde online editions. Even American-based Time magazine devoted several pages of factual as opposed to editorializing coverage in an article datelined 21 March.
The facts of the case have dribbled out over a long time, especially as from 2012 when Nicolas Sarkozy decided to run for the presidency again. The story of Libyan financing of his 2007 election began to attract attention. Incriminating documents were disseminated by investigative French media and ultimately Sarkozy lost at the polls to Francois Hollande by several percentage points. Sarkozy later directly blamed the stories of Libyan financing for his defeat.
I will begin here with a brief recitation of the main elements in the case against Sarkozy, and when they became public. We will then have a look at Sarkozy’s argumentation in his own defense which he presented extensively on the TF1 state television channel on Thursday evening.
But, the new dimension I propose to explore here in greater length is interpretive: placing the Sarkozy affair in the broader context of bringing to justice the Western world’s 21st century war criminal heads of state. So long as we choose only to look forward as Barack Obama insisted on doing immediately after taking office when he closed the book on investigations into the George W. Bush administration, and not looking into the rear view mirror, we are condemned to an endless succession of “road accidents” yielding only chaos and death in the Middle East, and possibly in the wider world.
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The Sarkozy story…
The wheels of justice turn slowly and may or may not grind fine. The current charges against Nicolas Sarkozy go back to the days when he still occupied the office of Minister of the Interior in the government of Jacques Chirac and campaigned to succeed Chirac in the presidency as candidate of the center-right UMP party. Sarkozy is said to have concluded a written agreement with Gaddafi’s intelligence chief Abdullah Senussi to provide 50 million euros to his campaign in exchange for unspecified French assistance to rehabilitate Libya’s standing internationally. The choice of Sarkozy to perform this mission was not arbitrary: he had over a long time spoken favorably of Islam and attempted when in power to integrate France’s Islamic minority including its religious hierarchy into the national landscape.
A number of intermediaries on both sides were appointed to facilitate the secret transfer of funds including in cash. Following his election, Nicolas Sarkozy very warmly welcomed Muamar Gaddafi in Paris on 10 December 2007 for a state visit during which the Libyan leader was permitted to set up his tents in gardens close to the Elysée Palace. At the time, this hosting of the dictator created controversy in the French media.
As we know, in the midst of the Arab Spring of 2011, Libya was one of the last dictatorships in North Africa to come under attack from self-proclaimed democratic rebels. France was among the loudest calling for Gaddafi to step down and be replaced by a transition government.
When the Colonel’s armed forces appeared to have taken the upper hand and victory over rebel forces in Benghazi and the east of the country was imminent, NATO, led by France, entered the conflict, initially under UN authorization to impose a no-fly zone for the stated purpose of protecting civilians from an anticipated massacre. This intervention in fact went well beyond its authorization and facilitated the overthrow of the Libyan regime, resulting in the brutal murder of its leader, who died amidst gang violence with a shot to the head. Chaos and disintegration of the state have continued to our day, with two power centers still vying for control of land and international recognition.
The fall of the Libyan dictator has special piquancy today because in his final months Gaddafi had reminded France and Europe of the important service he was performing for them: holding back the hordes of would-be asylum seekers from North and sub-Saharan Africa. And as it turned out, that warning was not exaggerated. With the chaos that followed Gaddafi’s murder, Libya has become one of the main jumping off points for hundreds of thousands and millions of immigrants on their way to Europe, compounding the problem that otherwise has been created by the civil war in Syria and strife throughout the Middle East extending as far as Afghanistan.
In March 2011, prior to the final assault on the regime, Gaddafi’s son gave an interview to Euronews in which he issued veiled warnings to the French to desist from their encouragement of the rebels whose spokesmen Sarkozy had received in Paris. “We can reveal a lot of things. Secrets….So the French should behave, or there is going to be a big fiasco in France,” he said. Others in Gaddafi’s entourage were less discrete and spoke of a large financial contribution to Sarkozy’s election in 2007.
In 2012, when Sarkozy prepared his next presidential bid, an investigative French news website Mediapart published the 2007 master agreement and several other documents relating to Libyan funds being passed to Sarkozy’s chief of staff Claude Guéant. One of the pieces of evidence was a film of Ziad Takieddine, a Lebanese businessman who introduced Sarkozy to Gaddafi. Takieddine explained how he handed cases of cash to Sarkozy and Guéant.
Also in 2012 rumors emerged that Muamar Gaddafi was killed not by the rebels who surrounded and mutilated him but by a French secret service agent who infiltrated the mob and shot him in the head, acting on express orders issued by Sarkozy.
In 2013, when Sarkozy no longer enjoyed immunity from prosecution, a judicial inquiry was opened in France with a view to possible charges for “active and passive corruption, misuse of power, forgery, abuse of public money, money laundering, and complicity in and concealment of these offences.” The inquiry did not at the time lead to any proceedings against Sarkozy, though it was not closed either.
In the meantime, Guéant had claimed that the documents obtained by Mediapart were false. However, a French court concluded that some were authentic and could be used in the investigation.
In the past week, Nicolas Sarkozy was arrested and held for questioning in a unit of the judicial police in the Paris suburb of Nanterre. He was subjected to 23 hours of interrogation over the course of two days, allowed to go home to sleep under bail conditions. He was barred from contacting Guéant and others from his former associates who were being interrogated separately. These include a former minister and close ally of Sarkozy, Brice Hortefeux.
In a separate but related line of investigation against Sarkozy, this past January British police arrested a French businessman who is suspected of having funneled money from Gaddafi to Sarkozy’s 2007 campaign. Alexandre Djouhri appeared in a London court and was released on bail. He was subsequently returned to pre-trial detention in February under a second warrant for his arrest issued by France. Djouhri is to appear in a hearing scheduled for later this month.
On the same day that he was released from custody, Sarkozy took to the air waves on state channel TF1 to give his story of the scandal. One sixth of the French electorate, approximately 7.3 million, viewed his broadcast. On the next day, his remarks were discussed at length in the country’s leading newspapers, Le Figaro on the right, long-time supporter of the UMP, then of the renamed Republican Party, and Le Monde, on the left, long-time supporter of the Socialists. We will look at the different treatments of the case that they set out in a moment.
A background of impunity
The Sarkozy affair falls into a succession of attempts to bring to justice the leading perpetrators of war crimes since the start of the new millennium: George W. Bush and Tony Blair. So far, the record is not promising on justice being done.
In the United States, during the presidency of George W. Bush, Congressmen Dennis Kucinich and Robert Wexler introduced 35 articles of impeachment against Bush in the House of Representatives on 10 June 2008. Fifteen of the articles related directly to the invasion of Iraq, starting with the false evidence used to obtain authority for the war through the conduct of the military action. The House voted 251 to 166 to refer the impeachment resolution to the Judiciary Committee where it died. For his efforts, Kucinich was gerrymandered out of his Ohio electoral district and is only now trying to make a political comeback in local politics of his state of Ohio.
In the UK, an investigation into the decision by Tony Blair’s government to join the USA in the 2003 invasion of Iraq went much further, though it took a very long time to reach a decision. It took still longer, nearly 4 years to publish it while the authors of the report wrestled with the government over what documents could be made public given the possibility they would severely damage relations with the United States.
The so-called Chilcot Inquiry was launched in 2009 by then Prime Minister Gordon Brown. The remit took in not only the start of the war but how it was prosecuted all the way to 2009.
The Inquiry held open sessions from November 2009 to February 2011. It had the authority to request any British document and summon any British subject to give evidence. Its prime witness was Tony Blair, who was called upon twice to undergo questioning. Other witnesses included former cabinet ministers and other politicians, senior civil servants, diplomats and high ranking military officers.
The Chilcot Inquiry final report was published on 6 July 2016. It consisted of 12 volumes plus an executive summary. The report was highly critical of the case for war made by the British government and military. It found that the legal basis for war was not satisfactory. It concluded that the Blair government had overestimated the UK’s ability to influence US decisions on Iraq. It faulted the war preparation and planning, and concluded that the UK’s objectives in the war were not achieved.
British media described the Chilcot Report as “damning,” as a “crushing verdict” on the Blair government.
On the day of the Report’s release, the leader of the opposition Labor Party, Jeremy Corbyn, who had spoken out against the war in Parliament from the beginning but was ignored by Blair, said in a speech to Westminster: “I now apologise sincerely on behalf of my party for the disastrous decision to go to war in Iraq in March 2003.” Corbyn denounced the war as “an act of military aggression launched on a false pretext.”
The major villain in the piece, former Prime Minister Tony Blair acknowledged some of the criticisms with respect to preparation, planning and the relationship with the United States, but insisted that he had acted out of good faith in the best interests of the nation.
No one paid a price for the wanton destruction and loss of life that the Iraq invasion brought about. For Blair, the Report was a bloody nose, nothing more.
However, the Chilcot Report did honorably achieve what it set out to do: it established responsibility for disastrous decisions, it found that the invasion was not justified by any urgent threat to British interests, that the UK had undermined the authority of the UN Security Council. All of this is to the good, better than anything which has occurred in the USA.
This time, with Sarkozy, it may end differently
The Sunday, 25 March edition of The Mail Online tells us:
“Sarkozy, 63, is facing a criminal trial and could be jailed over the donations…”
Jailed over the donations? How could this be? Why would the French establishment impose such shame on one of its own, bringing the whole country into disrepute?
Let it be said first that Nicolas Sarkozy, unlike Tony Blair or George W. Bush never projected warmth or charisma. On the contrary, this little Napoleon, as many viewed him, had an undisguised taste for ostentatious luxury, or bling bling, which exceeded by far his personal pocketbook until he fell in with his third wife, former super model and popular singer Carla Bruni. He also had a trail of controversial public statements that were indelibly burned into the popular memory. Perhaps Sarkozy’s most ugly recorded altercation with the common man took place on 23 February 2008 at an International Agriculture Show, when he responded sharply to someone who refused to shake his hand with the vulgar dismissal “Casse-toi, pauv' con” (get lost, you poor schmuck). At the very least, his comment was regarded as un-presidential.
To be sure, Sarkozy had a long and successful political career during which he held many contradictory positions which suited various segments of the electorate and which changed over time. He extolled Islam on a visit to Riyad and was long an advocate of Muslim integration in France. He backed the notion of state appropriations for the construction of mosques, to ensure they were not financed and run from abroad. And yet, he was always tough on immigration and used inflammatory language when addressing the issue of violence by Arab and black minorities in the French suburbs.
However, questions of his domestic policies and presence or absence of charisma do not bear on Sarkozy’s present predicament. The unique challenge he has faced from the beginning was that not all of his potential accusers were murdered along with Muamar Gaddafi. In particular, the Libyan dictator’s highly educated second son and political heir Saif al-Islam is alive to avenge the family’s loss whereas Bush and Blair never had to contend with a challenge to their narrative of the Iraqi adventure from the circle of Saddam Hussein. That the charges against Sarkozy have reached their present critical point cannot be separated from the recent release of Saif al-Islam from captivity by one of the armed bands which held him for six years, nor can it be separated from Gaddafi’s declared intention to run for president in elections to be held in Libya later this year. This political development in Libya has mobilized the surviving regime members and those who were go-betweens with Sarkozy. The witnesses include Abdallah Sanoussi, former director of Libyan intelligence services and Bashir Salah Bashir, the former CEO of Libya Investment, the country’s sovereign wealth fund.
The second factor working against Nicolas Sarkozy is the wave of popular repugnance in France with the old, corrupt political class that swept Emmanuel Macron to power last year and overwhelmed the candidate from Sarkozy’s Republican party, Francois Fillon. Fillon was caught out on the petty venality that has long typified French politics. In this sense, the Sarkozy case comes amidst a popular mood of house cleaning.
In considering what may come next, it bears mentioning that in 2011 Jacques Chirac under whom Sarkozy served as minister at several points in his career was found guilty of embezzlement and breach of trust when he was mayor of Paris, in a prosecution that was delayed for years by the President’s constitutional immunity. Specifically Chirac was accused of lavish entertainment at public expense, appointment to government jobs of party hacks, inflation in the number of such positions and similar measures to buy public support for his party and for himself.
The criminal prosecution of Chirac ended in the first conviction of a former head of the French state for corruption. Chirac was given a two-year suspended prison sentence. Moreover, leniency towards Chirac seemed justified given his frail health and memory loss related to a neural disorder.
Of course, the charges against Chirac were child’s play compared to those being leveled at Sarkozy today: illegal acceptance of foreign donations to his electoral campaign, accepting contributions which were double the allowable amount to campaign in the second round of voting. Moreover, there were no foreign policy implications to the felonies committed by President Chirac as there are now with Sarkozy, who promoted an illegal aggression on a sovereign state and opened the gates to mass illegal immigration by deposing and possibly murdering Gaddafi.
Even the US has gotten into the anti-Sarkozy act. Hollywood actor George Clooney’s wife Amal Clooney, née Alamuddin is quoted as saying recently: “Gaddafi is not guilty, it’s Sarkozy who is guilty.” The human rights lawyer of Lebanese-Libyan descent has also been a practitioner of criminal law in her high visibility professional career. She is known to be close to Ziad Takieddine, the French Lebanese who, as noted above, claims to have been an intermediary carrying funds from Gaddafi to Sarkozy
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When he left the interrogation and got into his car on his way home, Sarkozy is reported to have looked disheveled and haggard. During his televised defense on TF1, he looked nervous. And well he might, because to defend himself against the accusations Sarkozy had to muster a day by day recollection of his meetings with the various go-betweens who alleged they brought him cases of cash in 2007. He had, in particular, to discredit Ziad Takieddine, his main accuser.
The newspaper of the right, Le Figaro, issued a verbatim account of Sarkozy’s defense the day after he was released. Then in its weekend print edition it published a full page to the Sarkozy affair. At the head of the page, an article devoted to Sarkozy’s dinner with friends and close family at his favorite Italian restaurant in the fashionable 16th arrondissement of Paris as the public response to his speech came in claimed that the former President had “electrified his supporters” and that he was inundated by a SMS not only from the Republican Party but from ministers, including several now serving in the Macron government. At the start of the gathering, we are told all present were busy reading incoming messages on their mobile devices. One incoming message from Alain Juppé, long-time leader of the right, mayor of Bordeaux and Sarkozy’s rival for presidency, bears mention: “I watched TF1, I found Nicolas Sarkozy extremely combative. I also felt that he was deeply wounded, and I understand that. His argumentation seemed to me to be consistent.”
An article to the right of the page quotes one of Sarkozy’s close supporters and official spokesman for the Republican Party, Gilles Platret, who puts the investigation into Sarkozy in a different light, as an attack on France and its presidency: “..He [Sarkozy] was right to return the discussion to fundamentals. It is not so much the person who is being accused. It is the image of the presidential role. Can it be that a deceased dictator can still have an impact on the national sphere with accusations..?” Platret regrets that the accusations “give a sad color to the French political life.” He is said to have confidence that Sarkozy will “reestablish the truth in this affair….He began to do just that this evening.” In closing, Platret reminds readers that Sarkozy achieved a great deal for France during his presidency: “History will recall this with a big letter H.” But the Figaro journalist adds a word of caution to this: “Unless the courts decide otherwise.”
The greater part of the Sarkozy page in the weekend edition of Le Figaro is a point for point discussion of the charges against the ex-President. It points out the 2007 interview with Saif al-Islam on Euronews, who it says was then carried off by the revolution and is now living in Egypt. It highlights the key role of the businessman Ziad Takieddine as witness against Sarkozy. It recalls the written agreement signed by the head of Libyan intelligence on the financing published by Mediapart in April 2012. Figaro says that this document was found to be a forgery by investigators in another case concluded, and as Sarkozy argued in his televised defense. They mention still another Libyan accuser, the former Oil Minister Choukri Ghanem whose personal notebook was taken by French judges and is said to mention the financing of Sarkozy. Ghanem was never interrogated. He was found drowned in the Danube at Vienna in April 2012. The death was determined to be “accidental” by the Austrian police And Figaro points to the testimony given by Muamar Gaddafi himself when bombs were already falling on Tripoli in which he mentioned financing the French but without any details.
The Figaro article tries to place the whole affair in a geopolitical context. It notes that around the year 2000, Muamar Gaddafi sought respectability. He received French President Jacques Chirac in Libya in 2004. Then Nicolas Sarkozy in 2005, accompanied only by two translators. Gaddafi believed that Sarkozy would be the next president of France and was quoted by one of the interpreters as saying: “It is a good thing to have a brother, a friend at the head of France.” Close relations were knit as well with the close advisers to Sarkozy, Claude Guéant and Brice Hortefeux. As soon as he took office, Sarkozy launched his Union for the Mediterranean, an organization intended to promote North-South dialogue that was France’s answer to the EU’s Eastern Neighborhood Policy initiated by Germany.
Finally, Figaro weighs the evidence against Sarkozy. It notes that no written proof of transfers of funds by Libya exist. It says that the sums transferred are described variously by different witnesses ranging from the 35,000 euros in cash dispensed in 2007 to some employees of the UMP party, all of which is a drop in the ocean, while accusers speak of between 20 million dollars and 50 million euros. As for the travel restrictions placed on Sarkozy by the judges, and the ban on association with his colleagues now undergoing separate interrogation, the paper remarks that the opportunity to coordinate their testimony existed ever since 2013 when the first accusations appeared.
In sum, Figaro tells the Sarkozy story with a distinct bias toward the ex-president, but without fully endorsing his innocence.
The situation is quite different at Le Monde and considerably more dangerous for Sarkozy. I call particular attention to the article published there on 22 March under the title “Libyan financing: the blind spots of Nicolas Sarkozy’s defense” Here we read at the very outset: “Under investigation, the former president developed his defense in a text published by Le Figaro: it is an argumentation that is sometimes specious, with dead ends on material elements to the case.” It goes on to say that Sarkozy focused his efforts on discrediting Ziad Takieddine, “But he skirts around numerous substantive elements gathered by the investigators since 2013.” They then offer the Figaro text to which they add their own “decryption,” which in many instances suggests prevarication by Sarkozy.
Sarkozy opens his discourse by rejecting the notion that he had ever worked to advance the interests of the Libyan state. He reminds listeners that he had been responsible for getting UN approval to use military force against Gaddafi. Le Monde agrees on his key role in the 2011 military intervention but reminds readers that Sarkozy had a honeymoon with the Libyan leader at the start of his presidency.
Sarkozy responds to the accusations of former Libyan Prime Minister Baghdadi Ali Al-Mahmoudi that Sarkozy was thanked many times by the Libyan authorities for the financing. Says Sarkozy, perhaps, but between 2007 and 10 March 2011 there was never any kind of reference to claimed financing of the electoral campaign.
Le Monde’s comment: that is logical, since Gaddafi had no reason to embarrass the French by revelations of their contribution.
Sarkozy maintains that there is no material proof to support the claims by Muamar Gaddafi, by his son, his nephew, his cousin, his spokesman, his former prime minister or to support the claims of Mr. Takieddine, who is said to have been a carrier of Libyan state funds. Takieddine himself stole from the Libyan state. He has no proof that he met with me during the period 2005-2011.
Le Monde’s comment: Sarkozy is impugning the testimony of Ziad Takieddine, whose reputation is indeed controversial. Takieddine is suspected of having been involved in other French electoral financing going back to the campaign of Edouard Balladur in 1995. But he is the one who helped form the relationship between France and Libya beginning in 2005 and he was involved in other cases relating to France, in particular the liberation of Bulgarian nurses held in Libya on charges of AIDS contamination. Takieddine says he was then dropped by Sarkozy as intermediary in favor of another, Djouhri, and so he turned state witness in the Balladur case, then in 2012 came forward as witness in the developing scandal around Sarkozy.
Sarkozy maintains that his personal agenda for the period 2007, which was published in L’Express shows no mention of a meeting with Takieddine. And that is so, because none occurred from 2004 to present.
Le Monde’s comment: The absence of mention of a meeting with Takieddine in the ex-president’s personal agenda does not mean such a meeting never took place. The agenda was offered to judges by Sarkozy in another court case over alleged corruption during the 2007 electoral campaign, that relating to the heiress Bettencourt in June 2012. One can imagine that Sarkozy would not have had any interest in noting in this agenda a meeting with the intermediary Ziad Takieddine two months after the first revelations of Mediapart on the scenario of Libyan financing.
I will stop here. The point is obvious: Le Monde is giving Sarkozy no slack. His every word and action is weighed against the possibility, if not likelihood that he is lying.
We will all see shortly whether the French courts have the stomach to take the investigation of Sarkozy through to prosecution and conviction. And if so, whether suspended or real jail time will be meted out.
© Gilbert Doctorow, 2018
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Gilbert Doctorow is an independent political analyst based in Brussels. His latest book, Does the United States Have a Future? was published on 12 October 2017. Both paperback and e-book versions are available for purchase on www.amazon.com and all affiliated Amazon websites worldwide. See the recent professional review http://theduran.com/does-the-united-states-have-a-future-a-new-book-by-gilbert-doctorow-review/ For a video of the book presentation made at the National Press Club, Washington, D.C. on 7 December 2017 see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ciW4yod8upg