One of the most interesting results of France’s nationwide municipal elections was something that didn’t happen. In the weeks leading up to the elections, late last month, a series of potentially damaging recordings of former President Nicolas Sarkozy were leaked and published in various press outlets. If the motive was to influence voters, though, the move decidedly failed. Sarkozy was not himself a candidate, but his center-right party, the U.M.P., scored a significant triumph, gaining control of more than a hundred cities that had been governed by the left.
Along with providing another riveting chapter in the story of Sarkozy—perhaps France’s best-loved and most hated politician—the affaire des écoutes (“the wiretapping affair”) illustrates a larger international pattern: the increasingly pervasive and invasive surveillance of daily life has created a backlash on both sides of the Atlantic. A shift in sentiment, in the wake of the revelations of Edward Snowden about the surveillance programs of the National Security Agency, may have helped to blunt the impact of the revelations. French opinion appears to have turned against the snoopers and in favor of the snooped.
The wiretapping affair began on March 5th, when the satirical weekly magazine Le Canard Enchaîné and the news Web site Atlantico began publishing the contents of a series of conversations between Sarkozy and his inner circle. Patrick Buisson, one of Sarkozy’s closest advisers, had recorded them. Those first stories didn’t reveal much that was especially scandalous—fairly predictable political calculations of a cabinet shuffle and some amusing, gossipy banter between Sarkozy and his wife, Carla Bruni, a fashion model turned singer. They joked about the financial consequences of their marriage. “And I thought I was marrying a guy with a salary,” Bruni is heard saying on one tape. Sarkozy then adds, “In our couple, she’s the breadwinner. See, I got rich by marrying.”
Then, three days later, a second set of wiretaps surfaced. The daily Le Monde published the news that French judges had begun wiretapping Sarkozy in the course of an investigation into whether, before winning the Presidency in 2007, he had received illegal campaign funding from the former Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi. Investigators had bugged Sarkozy and his criminal-defense lawyer, Thierry Herzog, for more than a year. Aware that their phones were being tapped, Sarkozy and Herzog purchased a special secret phone, using the name Paul Bismuth.
The most explosive revelation was that Sarkozy and his lawyer had a source inside France’s highest court, which was keeping them informed about the status of another criminal investigation into Sarkozy. At the time, France’s Cour de Cassation was preparing to decide whether to admit into evidence Sarkozy’s personal diaries, in an investigation into whether he had taken advantage of the declining mental health of Liliane Betancourt, France’s wealthiest woman, who had contributed substantially to Sarkozy’s Presidential campaign. A high-court judge—who was not on the case himself—was hoping for Sarkozy to help him get a comfortable job with the government of Monaco. The appointment never happened, and Sarkozy has said that he never intervened on the judge’s behalf. Still, Sarkozy and his lawyer risked accusations of influence peddling.
Sarkozy had other troubles, too. A series of investigations begun by France’s Cour des Comptes (the equivalent of the U.S. General Accounting Office) found that Sarkozy spent some 9.4 million euros on no fewer than two hundred and thirty polls during his five years in office. Prosecutors in Paris opened an investigation into why the funds were donated and whether Sarkozy used them for purely campaign purposes. (He has denied doing anything improper.)
And yet the revelations quickly produced a substantial pushback. French lawyers protested a defense lawyer’s being wiretapped while consulting with his client—an extreme measure generally used only in terrorism or organized-crime cases. Although the two sets of leaks appear to be separate, their emergence at the same time—just before a major election—appeared highly suspect. Moreover, the notion of a former President’s phone being tapped for nearly a year seemed excessive to many French.
This then raised a major question: If the investigation had been going on for several months, when did key members of François Hollande’s government learn of the investigation and its contents?
Hollande, in characteristic fashion, remained silent, while his various ministers gave confusing and sometimes conflicting accounts. Christiane Taubira, the Minister of Justice, and Prime Minister Manuel Valls, at that time the Minister of the Interior, both insisted that they had learned of the wiretapping affair in the newspapers. French newspapers quickly discovered that Hollande and the key ministries had been informed months earlier. Taubira, in a memorable television moment, somewhat reminiscent of Richard Nixon’s “I am not a crook” speech, held a press conference to insist, “I did not lie … and I will not resign.” In what seemed like an instant, the Hollande government had managed to turn a potential electoral bonanza into a liability.
Just three days before the election, in late March, Sarkozy published a lengthy self-defense in Le Figaro, which also contained a vigorous attack on what he termed the government’s abuse of wiretaps. “I have long avoided since leaving office making public statements … but I have decided today that it is my duty to break the silence. If I do so, it’s because sacred principles of our Republic are crushed at our feet with unprecedented violence and with an unprecedented lack of scruple”:
I have been under surveillance since September of 2013 for supposed acts of corruption dating from 2007! Not because they have any evidence but because they hope to find some. Today anyone who speaks with me knows they are going to be wiretapped.…
This is not a scene from that marvellous film “The Lives of Others,” about East Germany and the activities of the Stasi. It is not the case of some dictator acting against his political opponents. This is France.
Sarkozy’s blistering attack seemed to hit home. According to the newspaper Le Point,Sarkozy was thrilled with the response: “Le Figaro was sold out at the newsstand. I can sell!” he was quoted as telling his friends. “Sales up by 122 per cent! 355,000 paying visitors on their site! Two million ‘likes’ on Facebook.”
As one Socialist deputy quoted in the left-leaning newspaper Libération commented, “People are kind of amazed, wondering how we could lose this particular match. We have to stop shooting ourselves in the foot, or soon we will have no gun and no foot.”
The latest polls show Sarkozy easily beating Hollande in a hypothetical Presidential race, as well as besting his far-right opponent, Marine Le Pen. As with everything regarding Sarkozy, we will have to stay tuned for the next episode. But the affaire des écoutes appears to have helped and not hurt him—for now. Sarkozy is no Snowden. But the French, it turns out, may not like being spied on.
Photograph by Lionel Cironneau/AP.