French police on Tuesday raided the home and offices of Nicolas Sarkozy, but the recently defeated president of France was nowhere to be seen.
That’s because, according to news reports, he was in the Charlevoix region, north of Montreal, vacationing with one of Canada’s most influential families. Sarkozy is vacationing at Sagard, the palatial home of Paul Desmarais, Sr., owner of Canada's Power Corp.
Sarkozy is being investigated over allegations he took illegal campaign donations from Lilliane Bettencourt, the 90-year-old heiress to the $23.5-billion L’Oreal cosmetics fortune and France’s richest woman.
It’s long been known that Desmarais, Canada’s fourth-richest person by one count, and seventh-richest person by another count, has long been a close friend of the French ex-president, but the campaign finance scandal touching Sarkozy touches people linked to the Desmarais clan as well.
One of Desmarais’ daughters, Sophie, is the former wife of Eric Le Moyne de Sérigny, whose name has surfaced in the scandal now engulfing Sarkozy. Their marriage ended a decade ago, according to news sources.
An asset manager and investment banker, De Sérigny was an adviser to Eric Woerth, a former French budget minister under Sarkozy who was implicated in the scandal. Woerth is under investigation.
Serigny sits on the board of Imerys, a mining company partly owned by a subsidiary of Power Corp., the company owned by Desmarais.
In 2010, a former accountant for Bettencourt alleged that French politicians commonly received large amounts of cash while visiting Bettencourt’s home, in violation of French law. Sarkozy is alleged to have received as much as EURO 150,000 in unsolicited donations. The limit for campaign donations by individuals in France is EURO 4,600.
The scandal simmered on the back burner during Sarkozy’s years in the Elysee Palace, but when he lost the election on June 15, clearing the way for current President Francois Hollande, Sarkozy’s presidential immunity ended.
The links between Sarkozy and the Desmarais family go back to well before the Bettencourt scandal. Desmarais has reportedly known Sarkozy since the mid-1990s, and, during a visit to Canada in 2008, Sarkozy said that Desmarais was one of the reasons he had become president of France.
Sarkozy said he had spent 10 days in 1995 with the Canadian business magnate, at the same Desmarais property north of Montreal, and came to feel so close to Desmarais that he felt “like a family member -- except for the inheritance, of course.”
Desmarais’ proximity to Sarkozy may have actually changed French policy towards Canada. While France had kept a neutral position on Quebec independence for decades after Charles De Gaulle’s “Vive le Quebec” comments in 1967, that policy changed under Sarkozy. The French president made it clear he wanted Quebec to remain in Canada.
Some observers say that position was due to Desmarais’ influence. Desmarais is known as a firm federalist who once reportedly said, “If Quebec separates from Canada, that’s my end.”
Desmarais is considered one of Canada's most influential entrepreneurs. No fewer than three former prime ministers -- Jean Chretien, Paul Martin and Brian Mulroney -- have worked for Power Corp. The online activist group Anonymous released a video in May showing Desmarais' connections to Canadian politicians.
The Montreal Gazette reports that Sarkozy will “spend a few days” at the Desmarais compound.