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FEATURE The end of the line for Laporte?

The end of the line for Laporte?
1 year ago

It’s been quite a week in Paris, and not one that reflects well on the presidency of Nicolas Sarkozy, who ruled France from 2007 to 2012. The man dubbed ‘President Bling Bling’ is appealing against his conviction last year for corruption, which entailed attempting to bribe a judge and influence peddling during his time in office. In other words, using his position to obtain preferential treatment for an associate.

Sarkozy has always maintained his innocence but the appeal court will have the last word when it delivers its verdict on Friday.

On Tuesday one of Sarkozy’s former ministers was also in court. To rugby fans Bernard Laporte is best known for coaching France to two Grand Slams and two World Cup semi-finals in the Noughties, but on leaving that role in 2007 he became Secretary of State for Youth and Sports in Sarkozy’s first government, answering to Prime Minister François Fillon, who last year was [2] convicted of corruption in a fake job scandal.

Laporte’s ministerial role was a short-lived one – two years – before the man known in the rugby world as ‘Crazy Bernie’ returned to rugby, steering Toulon to European dominance and then becoming in 2016 president of the FFR.

And that is where it began to unravel for Laporte, culminating in his standing before a judge on Tuesday as he received a two-year suspended term for corruption and was barred from holding any rugby post for two years. Hours after the verdict Laporte suspended himself as vice-chair of World Rugby.

In delivering her verdict, Judge Rose-Marie Hunault said that Laporte was guilty of corruption and influence peddling for the benefit of Mohed Altrad, the millionaire owner of Montpellier, whose name adorns the shirts of the French and New Zealand national teams. Describing the existence of a “corruption pact” between the pair, Judge Hunault said as a result the impartiality of the choice of the Altrad group as sponsor of the French team had been compromised. She condemned Laporte for his “complete disregard of the principles of ethics”.

Bernard Laporte
It was a chastening day for Bernard Laporte in court to receive his sentence (Photo by ALAIN JOCARD/Getty Images)

As Le Figaro remarked, those were ‘strong words’, and they were immediately seized on by Laporte’s enemies, of which there are many in France. ‘Divisive’ is a word made for Laporte; one either admires him or loathes him, and Florian Grill is firmly in the latter camp.

Two years ago he unsuccessfully stood against Laporte in the FFR presidency election, and within an hour of Tuesday’s verdict he called on his adversary and the 40 members of the FFR management committee to resign. “It’s unprecedented in rugby, it’s an earthquake,” Grill told the media. “We’ve never seen a Federation president sentenced to two years in prison, even if it’s suspended. It is a shock. We are light years away from everyday rugby, from village rugby, from club rugby.”

He has a point. I interviewed Laporte in 2016 when he was running to oust Pierre Camou as president of the FFR. He told me – as he told everyone he met on the campaign trail – that he would bring ‘transparency’ to French rugby, making it in the process more accountable to the grassroots.

For a man as rich as Altrad this was a paltry sum, the equivalent for you and I of losing a fiver down the back of the sofa. Why did he and Laporte connive to reduce the fine and how on earth did they think they would get away with it?

So what went wrong? How did a man who combined political cunning with streetfighter pugnacity make so many ill-judged decisions?

The story begins shortly after Laporte took office, in February 2017, when Laporte signed a 180,000 euro (£155,000) deal with Altrad group for his image reproduction rights. The prosecution claimed that Laporte received the money but did no work in return for the group.

The following month Laporte awarded a 1.8m euro (£1.5m) shirt sponsor contract to Altrad, and the president of the FFR was found to have used his influence to reduce a disciplinary fine against Montpellier from 70,000 euros (£60,000) to 20,000 euros (£17,000).

For a man as rich as Altrad this was a paltry sum, the equivalent for you and I of losing a fiver down the back of the sofa. Why did he and Laporte connive to reduce the fine and how on earth did they think they would get away with it?

Mohed Altrad, Bernard Laporte
Mohed Altrad and Bernard Laporte with French President Emmanuel Macron at the Top 14 final earlier this year (Photo by John Berry/Getty Images)

The only answer must be that the power went to their heads and the pair believed themselves untouchable.

They now know they are not. Altrad was given an 18-month suspended sentence and a 50,000 euro fine by the court, and while Montpellier rushed out a statement in support of their owner – well, they would, wouldn’t they? – the response from other partners was less sanguine. According to the New Zealand Herald, New Zealand Rugby is “seeking urgent meetings” with Altrad and  “may be forced to reconsider a multi-million-dollar sponsorship agreement”.

Understandable. Would you want your shirts emblazoned with the name of a man convicted of corruption?

The same question will be asked in France in the coming days. Hours after the verdict was delivered, the French Sports Minister Amelie Oudea-Castera declared that Laporte’s conviction was an “obstacle…to be able, as it stands, to continue his mission in good conditions”. She added that it was time for a “new democratic era to allow French rugby to rebound as quickly as possible and sufficiently healthy and solid, with a governance by the federation that will have the full confidence of the clubs”.

Laporte is legally entitled to remain in his position if he appeals the verdict; but such a process will take time and the last thing France wants is a messy legal battle on the eve of next year’s World Cup

With his political background, Laporte will know that when a government minister uses such language it is an invitation for the subject, metaphorically, to retire to his study with a loaded revolver and bottle of whisky.

Laporte is legally entitled to remain in his position if he appeals the verdict; but such a process will take time and the last thing France wants is a messy legal battle on the eve of next year’s World Cup.

France’s role in helping Qatar win the 2010 vote to host this year’s football world cup is the subject of an ongoing investigation, but it has already ruined the reputation of former France captain turned UEFA president Michel Platini, who in 2015 was banned from all football activities for eight years for wrongdoing in office. Sarkozy was mentioned in the voting scandal but has denied all allegations.

French national side
France are heavily fancied to do well at the World Cup and Macron will not want any more scandal (Photo by LUDOVIC MARIN/Getty Images)

As it is, the conviction of Laporte is already embarrassment enough for France and the swift response of World Rugby will only pile further pressure on him to accept the verdict and go quietly into the night without an appeal

The sport’s governing body issued a statement on Tuesday evening, acknowledging Laporte’s decision to self-suspend with immediate effect but declaring that “given the serious nature of the verdict World Rugby’s Executive Committee has referred the matter to its independent ethics officer for review in accordance with its integrity code”.

France has traditionally been more forgiving of malfeasance than the Anglo-Saxon world. Sarkozy, for example, despite two convictions for corruption in office, remains an influential figure in French politics. In April this year he endorsed Macron in the presidential election campaign, for which Macron said he was ‘honoured’.

Laporte, however, is unlikely to receive such indulgence. The next two years will be the most momentous in the history of French sport, with the Rugby World Cup in 2023 and the summer Olympics the following year. The eyes of the world will be on France and Macron won’t want either event to be sullied by the faintest whiff of scandal.  Nor by the looks of things do the French public; a poll on rugbyrama, the online sister of Midi Olympique, is asking readers whether Laporte should resign: to date 81% of the 7000 who have responded did so with a oui.

‘Crazy Bernie’ may be beginning to realise that there are some moments of madness from which one can never comeback.





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