Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy announced in September that he would be coming out of political retirement to run for head of the country's UMP conservative party. Sarkozy is the clear favorite to win the November 29 election, the first step toward declaring his candidacy for the 2017 presidential elections.
Sarkozy was elected in 2007, then beaten in 2012 by socialist party candidate François Hollande, becoming the first French president since 1981 to lose a reelection campaign. His recent political comeback has been clouded by deep divisions within the UMP party, and no fewer than nine legal disputes, the most controversial of which concerns the alleged secret financing of Sarkozy's 2007 presidential campaign by late Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi.
The allegations were first revealed by Mediapart, a left-leaning French news site known for high-profile investigations of political and financial scandals. VICE News spoke to Fabrice Arfi, the Mediapart journalist who broke the Qaddafi-Sarkozy story in 2011.
"For us, it started in the spring of 2011, when we got hold of thousands of documents — and I mean thousands — from the archive of a businessman and arms dealer called Ziad Takieddine," Arfi said.
Takieddine is a French-Lebanese businessman who specialized in major international arms contracts. Much to the delight of French journalists, Takieddine is also George Clooney's wife's uncle. He was an alleged middleman in the Karachi affair, a series of kickbacks connected to submarine contracts between France and Pakistan. The contracts allegedly financed the 1995 presidential campaign of former prime minister Édouard Balladur. Sarkozy was budget minister and Balladur's spokesman at the time of the Karachi affair, and was investigated for his role in the affair.
Arfi described Takieddine as a businessman leaving behind numerous traces of unofficial dealings between France and Libya.
"What we discovered is that the man we thought was tied to one era and one scandal — the Balladur era and the Karachi scandal — became more and more professional as time went on," Arfi said. "From the mid '90s to the Sarkozy presidential election, he became the common thread [through all the scandals] that exposed the dark side of Sarkozyism."
In 2011, Takieddine involved former president Jacques Chirac in a massive 1995 arms deal in Saudi Arabia, a scandal that came to be known as the Miksa contract. Sarkozy served as interior minister in Chirac's cabinet at the time. According to Mediapart, some of Sarkozy's relatives played a role in brokering the Miksa contract.
"Mr. Takieddine was supposed to receive 350 million euros in secret commission fees," Arfi told VICE News. "But Chirac stopped the deal from going ahead, prompting the need for a new business El Dorado… which turned out to be Libya."
According to Mediapart, members of the Chirac administration — including Sarkozy's team — helped Takieddine "win contracts with the Libyan regime," then under the control of Qaddafi.
"The relationship [with Libya] went deep, very early on," Arfi said.
Mediapart's subsequent reporting detailed the business, military and diplomatic relations between France and Libya. The story was largely ignored by other French news outlets until April 2012, when the site published an official Libyan document that detailed a plan for Qaddafi to fund Sarkozy's 2007 presidential campaign.
Mediapart came under fire over the authenticity of the document, and a scandal was born within the scandal. In April 2012, Sarkozy filed an official complaint against the site, claiming the document was forged. Arfi suggested that Sarkozy went with the forgery allegation rather than defamation — typically the go-to legal recourse in France in a case of this kind — in attempt to trigger an investigation that would reveal the source of the document.
"We are dealing with an international scandal, which could have tremendous diplomatic repercussions, and implicate highest-level state officials, in France and also in an authoritarian state such as Libya," Arfi said. "Informers are putting themselves at risk."
The disputed document is a letter dated December 10, 2006, and written by Moussa Koussa, a former member of Qaddafi's inner circle, who at the time headed the Libyan intelligence agency. The note describes Gaddafi's instruction to his chief of staff to finance Sarkozy's 2007 campaign to the tune of 50 million euros.
Doubts about the authenticity of the document boiled down to one question: Did the signature on the letter really belong to Koussa?
After a lengthy investigation, Koussa was finally brought in for questioning, and on November 6, 2014, three expert graphologists confirmed that his signature on the document was legitimate. On November 14, Mediapart published an article confirming the authentication of their evidence. The news was also reported by French daily Liberation, which pointed out that the ongoing investigation has not yet proved that Qaddafi's regime actually delivered the payment as planned. Other French news outlets have largely ignored the ruling, with a few exceptions.
In response to the lack of media attention, Mediapart editor-in-chief Edwy Penel decided to waive the site's subscription fee, and provide free access to the judicial report in full, under the contentious headline "Sarkozy-Gaddafi: The Truth They Want to Stifle."
"This is without doubt one of Mediapart's most emblematic investigations," wrote Plenel. "And in response to this unjustifiable indifference, we are publishing in full the document ignored by the majority of the media."
News agency AFP, which was singled out by Plenel over its silence, spoke to VICE News about its decision not to publish the document.
"Our decision not to publish this information is strictly editorial, and belongs entirely to us," Didier Lauras, AFP's editor-in-chief in France, said. "We regularly pick up our colleagues's stories, including Mediapart's. In this case, we decided that, according to our policy on processing information, we would not report on the developments at this stage in the case. We have, in fact, written widely about this case, from the moment Mediapart brought it to light in 2012. There is, of course, no stifling going on."
Looking forward, Arfi said he is "in a rush for this latest farce to end, so that we can get to the bottom of things from a legal standpoint. When the public understands the astonishing extent of these backroom deals with Qaddafi's regime, they will be profoundly shocked."
The ongoing investigation into the alleged payment from Qaddafi to Sarkozy is complicated by the fact that a number of key players and a vast amount of archival evidence disappeared over the course of the Libyan civil war, which started as a civilian uprising against Qaddafi in 2011. In March 2011, a multi-state coalition — including France — launched a military intervention in Libya. Qaddafi was captured and killed by rebels in October 2011. Since the toppling of the dictator's regime, Libya has devolved into lawlessness and Islamic State-linked extremism.
Follow Étienne Rouillon on Twitter @rouillonetienne
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