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Inside the Paris apartment where Sam Rainsy runs Cambodia's opposition

We spent the day finding out what an exiled Cambodian politician does in Paris

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Inside the Paris apartment where Sam Rainsy runs Cambodia's opposition

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Sam Rainsy wakes each morning before dawn.

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"I think real happiness is to be known to nobody and to lead an ordinary life and be anonymous. This is real happiness - real freedom"

Sam Rainsy Cambodian opposition leader

Despite living in France, the exiled Cambodian politician schedules his days to maximise the amount of waking hours he shares with his native country.

“Everything revolves around Cambodia,” he tells Euronews.

Dressed in a red jumper and his trademark thick-rimmed glasses, the 68-year-old politician sits glued to his laptop – his main mode of communication with his supporters.

“I have to be in touch through the internet so that actually the geographic distance doesn’t matter,” he explains.

His apartment in central Paris is emblematic of the distance between the charismatic politician and his supporters in Cambodia, many of whom live in traditional wooden stilt houses in the remote countryside.

A lift opens directly into his living room, leading into a modern kitchen overlooking a small patio garden where he spends afternoons growing an array of vegetables, fruits and herbs.

While heading out for a run near the Eiffel Tower, he reveals that he owns the entire apartment building that he and his wife live in – using just one floor for themselves and renting out the rest to “fund my political activities.”

Within the notoriously pricey Paris property market, the building is undoubtedly prime real estate, but the interior of Rainsy’s apartment is intentionally un-lavish.

Apart from the modern European-style kitchen, all of the rooms are sparsely decorated, with simple furnishings and unframed pictures of family and friends crudely stuck onto the walls of the bedrooms.

While Rainsy and his wife, Tioulong Saumura, warmly embrace guests, the apartment feels less like a home than a temporary base that is is designed to be left at any moment.

“My work and my mind are related to Cambodia all the time,” Rainsy says.

The exiled politician, who has a slew of charges and convictions to his name, was forced to officially resign as president of the country’s leading opposition party earlier this year ahead of an amendment to the law barring criminals from holding senior positions in political parties.

The changes to the law have been widely viewed as a direct attack on Rainsy, whose personal image has been ubiquitous with his Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) and its popularity.

His replacement and party co-founder was arrested in September on charges of treason, which the government has also threatened to pursue against Rainsy in both Cambodian and French courts.

The Supreme Court will rule in a case against the CNRP on Thursday, which is likely to see it dissolved altogether.

Home headquarters

Despite the distance, turmoil and even his resignation, Rainsy says he is as involved in Cambodian politics as ever before.

“There has been some practical change. In technical matters, I cannot be in touch with everything… But when it comes to the substance, to the strategy, then I continue to be involved,” he says.

Rainsy runs his political operations out of his home with the help of his wife and three Cambodian assistants.

From the kitchen table, the small team speak to colleagues in Cambodia, lobby international politicians, arrange frequent trips abroad and manage Rainsy’s social media pages.

When Euronews visited his home earlier this month, he was assessing a party statement calling for his co-founder’s release from prison.

His signature on the document has since prompted threats of legal action from the government, who called on his colleagues to “distance themselves from the convict.”

Working from France amid threats of legal action is nothing new to Rainsy.

“Over the last 20 years, I have been forced into exile many, many times, so I’m used to being in and out, in and out,” the French-educated former finance minister said.

“I think I have beaten the Guinness Record Book when it comes to jail sentences as a politician… This is a game that has no equivalence anywhere else in the world.”

His home and the people in it are reflective of Rainsy’s life, which he has spent more of in Europe than Cambodia.

He talks to his wife in French and his assistants in Khmer; lunch is an Italian salad followed by Cambodian sausages and rice; a picture of the Arc de Triomphe takes a central position in the living room, which is dotted with Cambodian-style cushions; a large bookcase is filled with Asian history books alongside ones about French art and the Harry Potter series.

With more than half of the CNRP’s MPs fleeing Cambodia in recent months amid a political crackdown, key strategy meetings are now often held in Europe too.

But while describing France as his second country, Rainsy insists that his heart remains in Cambodia.

Into obscurity

In his native Cambodia, Rainsy is a household name.

Boasting more than four million followers on Facebook, his devoted network of supporters have continued to back him through multiple stints outside of the country.

When a royal pardon brought him back to Cambodia ahead of the 2013 elections, tens of thousands of people turned out to greet him.

It is a stark contrast to his life in Paris.

Outside of his political activities, Rainsy fills his days shopping with his wife, gardening, cooking and jogging.

He is passionate about keeping fit, and proudly shows off a large collection of bicycles that he has amassed during his time in Paris, much to the amusement and annoyance of his wife.

Amid serious political discussions, he and his wife bicker playfully about work and household chores. He makes jokes over lunch about rival political figures in Cambodia, and breaks into laughter while booking flights for an important trip to the US after almost falling off of his chair.

To his neighbours and passersby, Rainsy likely appears as little more than a wealthy Parisian – an anonymity he says he enjoys.

“I think real happiness is to be known to nobody and to lead an ordinary life and be anonymous. This is real happiness – real freedom.”

A different life

Life for Rainsy and his wife could have been very different.

Following a disputed election in 2013, he claims Prime Minister Hun Sen offered him the position of deputy prime minister.

While undoubtedly carrying great wealth and security, Rainsy said the position offered to him was one without real power.

“For him [Hun Sen], dialogue means that I accept anything that he wants, that I stop being an opponent, that I work with him to be a partner, but a subservient partner, that I will be provided with all the material advantages.

“He knows only this kind of approach because he has got rid of his enemies by either killing them or buying them and all his enemies have sold out,” he told Euronews.

“I told him this would be political suicide for me.”

Sok Eysan, spokesman of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, dismissed the claim.

“It is difficult to believe Sam Rainsy because he has become so ridiculous now. I am always here and I have never heard that,” he said.

Since moving to France this time, Rainsy says the only contact he has had with Hun Sen has been messages through mutual acquaintances, relaying the prime minister’s anger.

Amid the current political crackdown in Cambodia, Rainsy said he is not expecting, and would not accept, a pardon to return to the country as he did ahead of the 2013 election.

“He would not hesitate to kill me or to kill any other leader of the CNRP…this is a different game”.

“This time, we need a comprehensive solution to the crisis.”

The components of such a solution, he says, include the release of all political prisoners, an end to an atmosphere of political intimidation, and the re-opening of shuttered media.

He acknowledges that this approach will “take time to achieve”, doing little to hurry his return to Cambodia, where many of his colleagues and supporters who haven’t had the luxury of escaping to France remain in prison.

But he claims it is the only way to ensure long-term results.

When asked what he misses the most about Cambodia, Rainsy smiles.

“Being with the people. Being with the people in the streets, in the fields, in the market, in the pagoda, everywhere. To be with the people.”