French political meltdown follows EU elections

Marine Le Pen sounds off as leadership of UMP resign, writes Lara Marlowe

The implosion of French political life precipitated by the victory of the far right-wing National Front (FN) in Sunday’s European elections continued apace yesterday.

The entire leadership of the conservative UMP resigned over a financial scandal involving former president Nicolas Sarkozy. The FN leader, Marine Le Pen, taunted both Sarkozy and President François Hollande, and flexed her political muscle by making crowd-pleasing political demands.

Had voters known before the election what they’ve learned since, a UMP official quipped, “Marine Le Pen would have won 35 per cent [instead of 25 per cent] in the European elections.”

The UMP's fate was sealed in a press conference by Patrick Maisonneuve, the lawyer for Bygmalion, the events organiser whose owners had long been close aides of the outgoing UMP president Jean-François Copé.


Le Point magazine revealed last February that Mr Copé gave at least €8 million worth of UMP contracts to Bygmalion.

In mid-May, Libération published evidence that the UMP paid close to €20 million to Bygmalion.

Fake bills Mr Maisonneuve admitted on Monday that at least €10 million of funds paid to Bygmalion by the UMP were in fact fake bills to disguise expenses for Sarkozy's 2012 election campaign. Sarkozy had exceeded the €22.5 million legal limit on campaign spending.

Mr Maisonneuve said Bygmalion was the object of “economic blackmail” by the UMP: “Either Bygmalion accepted this window dressing, or Bygmalion didn’t get paid. People talk about the Bygmalion affair. But it’s really about candidate Sarkozy’s campaign accounts.”

Jérôme Lavrilleux, who was Mr Copé’s cabinet director at the same time he was deputy director of Mr Sarkozy’s campaign, confirmed Mr Maisonneuve’s allegations in a sensational interview on BFM TV.

Pale, with a quivering voice and tears in his eyes, Mr Lavrilleux admitted that “around €11 million in campaign expenses” were billed to the party. Mr Lavrilleux claimed neither Mr Copé nor Mr Sarkozy were informed of the scheme.

Violation of campaign finance laws is punishable by up to 10 years in prison, €150,000 in fines and five years’ ineligibility for public office.

UMP “barons” began baying for Mr Copé’s sacking when the party came in four percentage points behind Le Pen’s FN on Sunday. The admissions by Mr Maisonneuve and Mr Lavrilleux convinced some that Mr Copé was determined to sabotage Mr Sarkozy’s hopes of a comeback in the 2017 presidential election.

Just a few months ago, Mr Lavrilleux predicted that when Mr Sarkozy returned as president, he would appoint Mr Copé prime minister, and he would be cabinet director.

“Believe me, it’s going to be bloody!” Ms Le Pen predicted of yesterday’s meeting of the UMP leadership. Mr Copé was adamant that he knew nothing about the phoney billing and insisted he would not resign.

One by one Mr Copé’s colleagues, most of them former cabinet ministers, denounced him, using the intimate “tu” form. “I can’t believe you,” said Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet.

“The honour of our political family is in danger,” said the former prime minister François Fillon, who posted his merciless indictment of Mr Copé on line. “I won’t shake your hand any more,” said François Baroin.

After more than two hours of verbal abuse by the political descendants of Charles de Gaulle, Mr Copé surrendered.

The leadership will be assumed by three former prime ministers – Fillon, Alain Juppé and Jean-Pierre Raffarin – until the party congress in October.

Mr Sarkozy's entourage said he "fell off the armoire" when he heard the allegations.

Between trips to Israel, where he went to a concert by his wife, Carla Bruni, and Spain, where he will see the king and prime minister, Mr Sarkozy did not comment.

Mocked by Le Pen But Ms Le Pen did not hold her tongue. On BFM TV and in a press conference at FN party headquarters, she hammered over and over that Mr Sarkozy "cheated". UMP supporters who bailed out the party last summer were "fall guys", she added, inviting them to join FN.

Ms Le Pen also mocked Mr Hollande's "stratospheric" address on Monday night, in which the beleaguered president seemed to blame Europe for his problems and repeated the same unkept promises he's made for the past two years.

Ms Le Pen demanded that Mr Hollande stop negotiations on a US-EU transatlantic trade agreement, that he veto the (totally theoretical) admission of Turkey to the EU, and nationalise the failing energy and transport giant Alstom.

Lara Marlowe

Lara Marlowe

Lara Marlowe is an Irish Times contributor