Analysis: Scandal shows risks of Sarkozy’s micro-management

By Paul Taylor

PARIS (BestGrowthStock) – A scandal over alleged illegal political donations by France’s richest woman has highlighted the way President Nicolas Sarkozy has centralised power more than any of his predecessors, seeking to pull all the strings.

The complex affair involving Labour Minister Eric Woerth has put the center-right government under pressure, angered voters and prompted calls for a cabinet reshuffle and a change in Sarkozy’s “hyperpresidential” style.

The president has denied receiving wads of cash from L’Oreal

heiress Liliane Bettencourt and her late husband and said he will not allow rumors to undermine his efforts to reform France’s pension system and cut the budget deficit. But many analysts say resistance has strengthened to those policies.

Sarkozy sacrificed two junior ministers last weekend to try to douse the fire. But even political allies say his personal involvement has damaged his standing, with polls showing his approval rating at record lows.

“The president cannot and must not be in the front line on every subject, otherwise he takes all the knocks,” former Prime Minister Alain Juppe, a senior member of Sarkozy’s UMP party tipped for a possible cabinet comeback, told reporters.

“The government must be left to manage things day-to-day in close dialogue with parliament,” Juppe told reporters.

Another former conservative prime minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, said Sarkozy’s highly personal leadership style exposed him whenever a minister got into trouble.

Woerth has denied receiving Bettencourt cash for Sarkozy’s 2007 election campaign and rejected any conflict of interest between his roles as UMP treasurer and budget minister in charge of tax, with a wife employed by Bettencourt’s wealth manager.

Sarkozy has repeatedly expressed confidence in Woerth.

Raffarin, who was premier under Sarkozy’s predecessor, Jacques Chirac, told France Inter radio: “The prime minister is no longer the protector of the president as he used to be. As a result, the president is very much alone.”

He called for an early reshuffle to give more authority to a smaller team of ministers.

MICRO-MANAGEMENT

Secret recordings, taped by a butler, of conversations between Bettencourt and her financial and legal advisers suggest that Sarkozy’s office micro-managed their response to lawsuits filed by Bettencourt’s estranged daughter against her mother.

According to published transcripts, Sarkozy’s legal counselor gave regular advice at the presidential palace to Bettencourt’s wealth manager on how to fend off the lawsuits.

The recordings also suggest the prosecutor in charge of the case, Philippe Courroye, informed the president’s office weeks in advance of a decision he planned to take on the lawsuit.

The Bettencourt affair has come to a head amid a wider malaise about the extent of Sarkozy’s desire to be in control.

In a book entitled “The Consular March,” veteran political commentator Alain Duhamel compared Sarkozy’s restless activism and centralization of power to the Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, calling the president “Bonaparte in a suit.”

By pressing an unsuccessful lawsuit against former conservative Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, Sarkozy appeared to pursue a personal vendetta against a rival he suspected of trying to undermine him. The president was quoted as saying he wanted to “hang him from a butcher’s hook.”

Bernard Thibault, leader of France’s biggest trade union, CGT, said Sarkozy’s excessive personal involvement had become an obstacle in negotiations on labor, pensions or health reforms.

“The fact that the president has chosen to arbitrate on every issue himself means there is no one to appeal to. What the prime minister or a minister puts to us has already been subject to arbitration at the Elysee (palace),” Thibault told Reuters.

France’s former ambassador in Senegal, Jean-Christophe Rufin, denounced the way the president’s office controlled ties with former French colonies in Africa and has sidelined the foreign ministry.

In an interview with the newspaper Le Monde, he said Claude Gueant, Sarkozy’s chief of staff, was in charge of all sensitive African issues and Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner had been stripped of responsibility.

“The Quai d’Orsay (foreign ministry) is a disaster area today. Our diplomats are in total despair because they don’t feel anyone is defending them,” he said.

Kouchner ascribed Rufin’s comments to personal bitterness. But two other former foreign ministers, the conservative Juppe and socialist Hubert Vedrine, weighed in with a joint article saying the foreign ministry was being weakened constantly at the risk of destroying France’s diplomatic toolbox.

(additional reporting by Emmanuel Jarry and John Irish; Editing by Charles Dick)

Analysis: Scandal shows risks of Sarkozy’s micro-management