Sarkozy vs. the Corsicans

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Francois Lenoir / reuters

France's newspapers and television news stations have been buzzing with excitement and indignation this week over the suggestion that President Nicolas Sarkozy exploited the powers of his office to help a celebrity friend.

The allegation follows a protest on the Mediterranean island of Corsica, where a small minority of nationalist militants has agitated for greater autonomy from France for decades. On Aug. 30, a group of 50 or so activists occupied the luxury villa of comic actor and Sarkozy intimate Christian Clavier. The protest, which sought to highlight the "colonization" of the island by wealthy French mainlanders, was clearly also designed to embarrass Sarkozy by targeting his film star buddy's sumptuous vacation abode. Protesters stayed about 90 minutes, just long enough to help themselves to some of the cellar's best bottles of wine.

Initial media reaction was playful and noted the irony of Corsica's notoriously ferocious nationalists peacefully defending their cause at the expense of an actor whose film hits include The Visitors and The Corsican Investigation.

But when Dominique Rossi, a respected police officer posted to Corsica as the island's senior security official was disciplined for not acting upon intelligence information ahead of the house invasion, the hand wringing began. Critics allege that Sarkozy himself intervened on his friend's behalf.

François Bayrou, a centrist candidate in last year's presidential election, denounced the move as an abuse of executive power and a reflection of the omnipotent nature of the current regime. "Such arbitrary and disproportionate decisions are what you get when all power is concentrated in the same hands," said Bayrou. Rossi's punishment — the interior ministry says the official's "error in judgment" has resulted in his transfer to a new post — and similar measures in the past that benefited Sarkozy's friends, are "princely whims" according to Bayrou. Leftist daily Libération quoted officials involved in the case who said Sarkozy was infuriated by the invasion and "ordered the person responsible fired".

Sarkozy and Elysée officials have so far refused comment on the controversy. But France's Interior Ministry denies Rossi's punishment was either imposed by Sarkozy, or had any relation to his long friendship with Clavier.

But critics say the episode is only the latest to suggest Sarkozy has blurred the lines between personal friendships and presidential responsibilities. Following his election last year, for example, Sarkozy accepted the free use of a yacht owned by billionaire businessman Vincent Bolloré — a gift detractors call a potential conflict of interest, given the frequent intervention of the state into French economic affairs.

Similarly, Sarkozy's decision earlier this year to ban commercials from state television Channels, provoked an outcry, since the biggest expected beneficiary of the resulting advertising windfall will be private station TF1 — whose owner, Martin Bouygues, was best man at Sarkozy's wedding to former wife Cécilia. Opponents also claim Sarkozy has used his friendship with Bouygues — and one with another media mogul the president has called "my brother" — to direct the alleged nomination of sympathetic journalists into important editorial positions as a means of shaping friendly political coverage.

Sarkozy has largely failed to respond to such accusations, or else has mocked them as the fabrications of rivals incapable of opposing him in parliament or at the ballot box. As is stands, the French President is getting less political scrutiny than the governor of Alaska.