Sarkozy should bring clarity into public life

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While Nicolas Sarkozy makes the French presidency look increasingly like a one-man government, his former political rivals are having a more difficult summer.

Dominique de Villepin, ex-prime minister, returned from Tahiti to be placed under formal investigation for his role in the so-called Clearstream affair, an alleged plot to smear Mr Sarkozy and damage his chances of winning the presidency. Jacques Chirac, his former mentor, began his own holiday after being questioned by a judge investigating political corruption that took place while he was mayor of Paris.

In each case, the underlying issue is whether a public figure used his office, and the resources accompanying it, to further personal or political goals.

Both men argue they acted only in line with their official duties. Mr de Villepin strongly denies that personal rivalry led him, as foreign and then interior minister, to press investigations when Mr Sarkozy’s name appeared on a list of individuals said to hold secret accounts with the Luxembourg clearing house, Clearstream, that later proved fake.

Mr Chirac, meanwhile, has argued publicly that the affair of fake municipal jobs given to members of his RPR party took place at a time of upheaval in previously informal political funding practices.

It must be tempting for Mr Sarkozy, free of judicial worries, to sit back and enjoy his rivals’ discomfort. Yet he himself has often been accused of using office to serve political ambition: his dual position as interior minister and presidential candidate led to constant complaints that departmental resources could aid his electoral campaign.

He should seize the opportunity to bring greater clarity into French public life. Matters have certainly improved since the chaotic transition period Mr Chirac describes, especially as regards rules on party funding, but the recent scandal has raised questions over a political culture in which public and personal roles can become blurred.

French media have followed the Clearstream affair with unusual tenacity and the pressures for change could grow.

Mr Sarkozy, in establishing a commission to examine constitutional reform, has created an ideal vehicle to address the issue. He should now give the commission an explicit remit to demarcate official and political functions – potentially with new powers for parliamentary scrutiny of outgoing officials.

Such a move could help to restore confidence in the political system – and help current and future politicians avoid embarrassing questions when they eventually leave office.

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