Did Jean-Francois Copé, the leader of the conservative UMP party, overcharge then president Nicolas Sarkozy and impoverish the party to enrich his own friends?
That is the accusation levelled by Le Point magazine in its cover story on "The Copé affair". Mr Copé denies the allegations, says he is the victim of a "plot" to discredit him and has sworn to sue Le Point .
Two of Mr Copé's closest aides, Bastien Millot and Guy Alvès, founded a private communications agency called "Bygmalion" in 2008. Both men worked for Mr Copé for at least 10 years, at the town hall of Meaux, where he is mayor, and in his cabinet the three times he was a government minister. When Mr Copé became party leader in 2010, he gave Bygmalion the UMP's communications contract.
Le Point claims that "Events & Cie," a subsidiary of Bygmalion, was paid at least €8 million to organise campaign rallies for Mr Sarkozy in 2012. The magazine asked professionals to evaluate bills submitted by "Events" to the Sarkozy campaign.
Experts concluded that Bygmalion’s bills were 20 per cent above market rates, with invoices for catering, video transmission and lighting double normal prices. A rally in a town of 17,000 people north of Paris cost €76,523.
Mr Sarkozy's campaign accounts were disqualified by the constitutional council last summer, forcing the UMP to stage a "Sarkothon" to raise €11 million to keep the bailiffs at bay. As Le Point notes, the UMP was France's richest party when Mr Copé took over. It must now reimburse €55 million in debt over five years.
By contrast, Générationfrance.fr, the “micro-party” Mr Copé founded in 2006, and which, like Bygmalion, was initially based in the apartment of Guy Alvès, is flourishing.
Le Point also outlines property deals totalling €442 million between France and Qatar, which Mr Copé signed off on as budget minister. At the time of the sales, Mr Alvès left his job as Mr Copé's cabinet director to work for Centuria, the agent for the Qataris. Centuria is believed to have received at least €12 million in commissions on the deals.
With a view to securing the UMP’s 2017 presidential nomination, Mr Copé fought former prime minister François Fillon for the party leadership. Mr Copé eventually prevailed, but the Bygmalion scandal endangers his political future.
Mr Copé "never succeeded . . . in making himself loved by the French, much less in being recognised as the 'leader of the opposition'," Guillaume Tabard writes in the conservative Le Figaro newspaper.
The UMP’s feuding “barons” – Sarkozy, Fillon, Alain Juppé, Xavier Bertrand and Bruno Le Maire – are reportedly determined to unseat Mr Copé in next year’s party elections, to ensure he plays no role in France’s next presidential contest.