Why Sarkozy is in Canada while police raid his Paris home

The former French president, now under investigation for illicit campaign financing, has close ties to Quebec business titan Paul Desmarais

Left: Paul Desmarais (Paul Chiasson/CP); right: Nicolas Sarkozy (Philippe Wojazer/Reuters)

While police rifle through his Paris residence, recently defeated French President Nicolas Sarkozy is vacationing in Quebec at a country abode owned by one of Canada’s richest families.

Fresh off his defeat in France’s June elections, Sarkozy is apparently suffering from a touch of burn out, according to a report in French magazine Le Point. The ex-President’s timing is auspicious: on Tuesday, police raided his home and office as part of an investigation into illegal financing of his 2007 presidential campaign.

Sarkozy, who lost his immunity from prosecution after losing to François Hollande on June 15, faces charges that he accepted €50,000 ($63,837) from cosmetic heiress Liliane Bettencourt. The amount is significantly larger than the €4,600 ($5,873) donation limit allowed by French law, and it fueled the popular caricature of Sarkozy as a stooge to France’s idle rich. (Sarkozy denied he took the donation.)

What is perhaps more interesting on this side of the Atlantic is Sarkozy’s choice of accommodations. Located roughly one-hour’s drive north of Montreal in Quebec’s Laurentians district, the house is owned by the wealthy and discreet Desmarais family. Sarkozy is a longtime friend of patriarch Paul Desmarais, who in 1968 bought the suitably named Power Corporation and turned it into a media, insurance and investment juggernaut with 2011 revenues of just over $33 billion. (He is #248 on the Forbes list of world billionaires.) No less than three former Prime Ministers—Brian Mulroney, Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin—worked at Power during their careers. Chrétien’s daughter France is married to André Desmarais, Paul’s son. Sarkozy has frequently vacationed in Quebec at the behest of Paul Desmarais.

Sarkozy and Paul Desmarais, 85, reportedly met in 1995, when Sarkozy’s career was slumping. The pair walked the forests and grounds of Sagard, the Desmarais palacial spread in the Charlevoix region in Quebec’s hinterland. “You must get yourself together, you’ll get there, we must build a strategy for you,” Sarkozy remembers Desmarais saying to him. Wealthy in both assets and contacts in French political circles, Desmarais helped guide the precocious Sarkozy into the President’s office in 2007. “If today I am president, it’s in part due to Paul Desmarais,” Sarkozy said in 2008.

The president certainly returned the favour. In February 2008, in a ceremony attended by Quebec Premier Jean Charest, Sarkozy bestowed on Desmarais the grand-croix de la Légion d’honneur, France’s highest order. The ties run even wider: one of Sarkozy’s former close advisors, Eric Le Moyne de Sérigny, was once married to Desmarais daughter, Sophie. Today, de Sérigny is himself embroiled in the campaign financing scandal.

The Sarkozy-Desmarais relationship has had profound (if largely unspoken) consequences for Canadian unity. Under Sarkozy, France abondoned its policy of “non-interference, non-indifference” to become a wholehearted ally of a united Canada. It is widely believed that this is due in large part to Desmarais, a dedicated federalist and noted scourge of the Quebec separatists. (Some of the fringe elements of the movement often point out how, as a native of Sudbury, Ontario, Paul Desmarais isn’t a true Québécois.) “Indeed, I love your coutnry. I love Canada’s beauty and the warmth and the generosity of its people,” Sarkozy told CanWest News in 2008.

It remains unclear how long Sarkozy will stay in Morin Heights, though if their relationship is any indication the ex-French president can count on the Desmarais clan for comfort and security, no matter what fate awaits him in Paris.