By Mark John
PARIS (Reuters) - "'Affaires'? They're picking up again," joked President Francois Hollande to reporters last week in a pun on the French word for both business activities and political scandals.
Well might he smile. For the legacy of a turbulent past few weeks of intrigue may be to harm any hopes ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy has of avenging his 2012 defeat by Hollande in the next presidential election.
In quick succession, Sarkozy and France's conservative opposition have been hit by allegations of improper use of party funds, influence-peddling and leaked tapes in which the former leader is heard trashing his then ministers.
Those under suspicion deny wrongdoing and accuse Hollande's Socialists of using the judiciary to launch a smear campaign. The political heat spread to the government camp when his justice minister contradicted herself about the extent of her knowledge of the investigations underway.
Short-term, the saga has strengthened the suspicions of the French about the shadiness of their politicians. It will also do little to help mainstream parties, left or right, in town hall elections this month when the anti-immigrant National Front - France's third political force - expects gains.
But more crucially, it has shown how Sarkozy's comeback from early retirement to stand in the 2017 election - something the 59-year-old has said he would consider out of "duty" to the nation - is held hostage to legal upsets.
Writer Thomas Guenole draws parallels with the classical Greek figure of Damocles, who according to legend sat under a sword suspended by a single horse hair. "Sarkozy is the Damocles of French politics - and now he has five swords above his head,"
Guenole, author of "Sarkozy - the story of an impossible comeback", said of the five legal cases in which he is now implicated.
The awkward link between the law and executive power in France has fed scandals as far back as the Dreyfus Affair in the late 19th century, when for political expediency a Jewish army officer was wrongly convicted of treason.
The fact that top members of the magistrature fall under the hierarchy of the justice minister both creates scope for political meddling and feeds suspicions of it, even when unfounded. The European Court of Human Rights judged in 2008 that French justice was not fully independent.
A cloud was lifted off Sarkozy's future last October when a court dropped inquiries into whether he had exploited the mental frailty of France's richest woman, L'Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt, to fund his successful 2007 election campaign.
That still left a separate investigation open on whether he illegally used funding from late Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi for the same campaign.
The new twist is that phone taps of Sarkozy and his lawyer, carried out in the Gaddafi inquiry, have prompted investigating magistrates to open yet another case after monitoring conversations they believe show Sarkozy promised a judge a career boost in return for favors.
Sarkozy has made no public comment. His lawyer Thierry Herzog called the accusations unfounded and a "monstrous" attempt to destroy the comeback hopes of the politician still favored by right-wing voters for the 2017 presidential race.
"Sarkozy has an excellent lawyer - in fact he has several," noted Guenole. "But it shows there is one big risk that he cannot do anything about: that he is hit with formal charges just before the 2017 election."
The snail's pace of French justice means such a risk - which would destroy any presidential bid - is real. Others argue that Sarkozy has already been politically damaged by events of the past few weeks.
A March 7-8 survey by pollster Ifop just after the first revelations showed Sarkozy's popularity ratings fell to 44 percent from 50 percent. This is still above Hollande's dire 28 percent score, but shows a worrying drop given he has yet to re-emerge from retirement into the cut-and-thrust of politics.
Just as bad, his ex-protege who runs the conservative UMP party in his absence, Jean-Francois Cope, faces a preliminary inquiry over allegations he let his friends submit inflated invoices for their work organizing Sarkozy's 2012 rallies.
"The country wants solutions. But increasingly, Sarkozy and his allies are being perceived as problems," said Stephane Rozes, head of political consultancy Cap and who advised Sarkozy for the 2007 elections and Hollande in 2012.
Although Cope protests his innocence, his already poor poll ratings have been knocked further and his tenuous hold on the UMP weakened - setting the stage for a battle for leadership of the French right with unpredictable consequences.
For Sarkozy, the worst-case scenario would be a party coup led by Alain Juppe, the veteran ex-prime minister he replaced as UMP leader in 2004 but who could go on to position himself for a the presidential run. Juppe, now mayor of the southwestern city of Bordeaux, has kept his intentions well under wraps.
Whatever happens, Sarkozy, a political scrapper at his best when down, is unlikely to give in without a fight - even if it means the implosion of the UMP formed a mere 12 years ago to settle an earlier round of old scores on the French right.
Hollande may currently look a poor bet for winning a second term, given his failure so far to kickstart the economy and the lack of confidence he inspires in most French voters.
But, some argue, his chances might be better than they now seem if he is up against Sarkozy trying to portray himself as a returning saviour of the country but looking over one shoulder for legal problems and leading a divided party licking its wounds.
"Sarkozy could still play the white knight," said Rozes. "But he would be a white knight with chinks in his armor."
(editing by David Stamp)