Ex-President Sarkozy Gets Jail Sentence for Corruption in France

Nicolas Sarkozy was accused of try­ing to obtain con­fi­den­tial infor­ma­tion from a judge by offer­ing to help him land a job. He received a sen­tence of at least one year, but said he would appeal.

March 1, 2021

Nicolas Sarkozy arriv­ing at the cour­t­house in Paris on Monday. He was the first for­mer pres­i­dent of France to phys­i­cal­ly attend his own tri­al since 1945.Anne-Christine Poujoulat/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

PARIS — The for­mer French pres­i­dent Nicolas Sarkozy was found guilty and sen­tenced to prison by a court in Paris on Monday on charges of cor­rup­tion and influ­ence ped­dling, only the sec­ond time in mod­ern French his­to­ry that a for­mer pres­i­dent has been con­vict­ed of a crime.

The con­vic­tion was the cul­mi­na­tion of just one of sev­er­al long-run­ning legal entan­gle­ments that are com­ing to a head for the politi­cian who led France from 2007 to 2012. Mr. Sarkozy, 66, has always denied any wrong­do­ing and he quick­ly announced he would appeal.

He still holds con­sid­er­able sway among French con­ser­v­a­tives, but the con­vic­tion could under­mine his broad­er stand­ing in French pol­i­tics and dash any hopes of mount­ing yet anoth­er come­back ahead of the 2022 pres­i­den­tial elec­tions — espe­cial­ly for a politi­cian who has fash­ioned him­self as par­tic­u­lar­ly tough on crime.

Mr. Sarkozy was found guilty of try­ing to ille­gal­ly obtain infor­ma­tion on anoth­er case against him from a judge in return for promis­es to use his influ­ence to secure a pres­ti­gious job for the judge.

Jean-François Bohnert, the head of the finan­cial prosecutor’s office — which han­dled the case against Mr. Sarkozy — not­ed in a state­ment that the judges had found his actions “par­tic­u­lar­ly seri­ous, hav­ing been com­mit­ted by a for­mer pres­i­dent of the Republic who was once the guar­an­tor of an inde­pen­dent judiciary.”

Jacqueline Laffont, Mr. Sarkozy’s lawyer, told reporters that he would appeal the con­vic­tion, call­ing the rul­ing “total­ly base­less and unjustified.”

While the court hand­ed down a three-year prison sen­tence, two of those years were sus­pend­ed. If Mr. Sarkozy com­mits a new crime with­in a giv­en time frame, a court could then order the full sen­tence to be served.

Mr. Sarkozy can request that his one-year term be served out­side prison, for instance at home with an elec­tron­ic bracelet. But Mr. Sarkozy’s appeal places the entire sen­tence on hold. The con­vic­tion does not bar Mr. Sarkozy from run­ning for office, although he has not pub­licly expressed any such desire.

It’s a hard blow,” said Pascal Perrineau, a polit­i­cal sci­ence pro­fes­sor at the Sciences Po uni­ver­si­ty in Paris, not­ing that despite his legal wor­ries since leav­ing office, Mr. Sarkozy had cul­ti­vat­ed the image of an “irre­place­able” king­mak­er who act­ed behind the scenes on the French right, aid­ed in part by the lack of a clear polit­i­cal successor.

He filled the void and appeared as a moral author­i­ty, and a pos­si­ble option for 2022,” Mr. Perrineau said. “His con­vic­tion, if con­firmed, robs him of this stature.”

Until Monday, only one pres­i­dent in recent French his­to­ry had been found guilty by a court of law: Jacques Chirac, who was con­vict­ed in 2011 of embez­zling and mis­us­ing pub­lic funds when he was may­or of Paris. Mr. Chirac was the first French head of state to stand tri­al since Marshal Philippe Pétain was found guilty of trea­son at the end of World War II for col­lab­o­rat­ing with Nazi Germany.

Former President Jacques Chirac in 2011. Until Monday, he was the only pres­i­dent in recent his­to­ry to have been found guilty by a court of law.Charles Platiau/Reuters

Mr. Chirac, how­ev­er, was tried in absen­tia because of his poor men­tal health, and last year Mr. Sarkozy became the first French pres­i­dent to phys­i­cal­ly attend his own tri­al since 1945. On Monday, Mr. Sarkozy also became the first French pres­i­dent to be found guilty on the spe­cif­ic charge of corruption.

The list of French politi­cians — not just pres­i­dents — who have been con­vict­ed of finan­cial or legal impro­pri­ety is much longer, how­ev­er, includ­ing François Fillon, Mr. Sarkozy’s for­mer prime min­is­ter; Christine Lagarde, Mr. Sarkozy’s for­mer econ­o­my min­is­ter; and Jérôme Cahuzac, who was bud­get min­is­ter under a Socialist government.

The string of cas­es has fed grow­ing frus­tra­tion with France’s polit­i­cal elite.

Symbolically, it is very impor­tant,” Mr. Perrineau said of Mr. Sarkozy’s con­vic­tion. “It height­ens the mis­trust, the impres­sion that they are all corrupt.”

Mr. Sarkozy, who lost his bid for re-elec­tion in 2012 and mount­ed a failed come­back attempt in 2016, has denied any wrong­do­ing in the web of cas­es that has plagued him since he left office.

He is sched­uled to stand tri­al lat­er this month in a sep­a­rate case involv­ing his 2012 cam­paign, in which he has been charged with exceed­ing strict lim­its on cam­paign spend­ing. The longest-run­ning and most seri­ous case against him involves accu­sa­tions that his 2007 cam­paign received ille­gal financ­ing from the gov­ern­ment of the now-dead Libyan strong­man Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi.

Other cas­es against Mr. Sarkozy have been dropped, includ­ing one in which he was accused of manip­u­lat­ing the heiress to the L’Oréal cos­met­ics for­tune into financ­ing his 2007 campaign.

Mr. Sarkozy meet­ing with the Libyan leader Muammar el-Qaddafi in 2007.Franck Fife/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The ver­dict came amid a heat­ed polit­i­cal cli­mate in France as the coun­try gears up for the 2022 pres­i­den­tial election.

Mr. Sarkozy is on good terms with President Emmanuel Macron, who has recent­ly steered France to the right, and he still wields con­sid­er­able influ­ence on the main con­ser­v­a­tive polit­i­cal par­ty in France, Les Républicains.

With the pres­i­den­tial elec­tion fast approach­ing and no clear front-run­ners in sight, Mr. Sarkozy’s bless­ing is wide­ly sought by par­ty offi­cials, many of whom have accused pros­e­cu­tors and judges of unfair­ly tar­get­ing Mr. Sarkozy.

Christian Jacob, the head of Les Républicains, expressed “unfail­ing sup­port” for Mr. Sarkozy on Monday.

The sever­i­ty of the sen­tence is absolute­ly dis­pro­por­tion­ate,” he wrote on Twitter.

Gérald Darmanin, a for­mer pro­tégé of Mr. Sarkozy who is now Mr. Macron’s tough-talk­ing inte­ri­or min­is­ter, extend­ed his “friend­ly sup­port” to the for­mer pres­i­dent after his conviction.

The case on Monday, known as the “wire­tap­ping affair,” was the first against the for­mer pres­i­dent to final­ly reach tri­al, as Mr. Sarkozy — a lawyer by train­ing — used every legal recourse avail­able to him to draw out proceedings.

Although the cas­es are sep­a­rate, the wire­tap­ping affair emerged from the Libya inquiry, which began in 2013 and led inves­ti­ga­tors to place wire­taps on phones belong­ing to Mr. Sarkozy and Thierry Herzog, his lawyer.

Thierry Herzog, a lawyer for Mr. Sarkozy, shown in December, was tried for cor­rup­tion and influ­ence ped­dling and found guilty.Benoit Tessier/Reuters

Through the wire­taps, pros­e­cu­tors claimed in court, inves­ti­ga­tors dis­cov­ered in 2014 that Mr. Sarkozy and Mr. Herzog were using secret phone lines and that the two had dis­cussed ways of obtain­ing con­fi­den­tial infor­ma­tion about anoth­er case involv­ing the for­mer pres­i­dent that was being han­dled by France’s top appeals court.

Prosecutors said Mr. Sarkozy sought to ille­gal­ly obtain infor­ma­tion from Gilbert Azibert, then a mag­is­trate at the court, includ­ing by promis­ing to use his influ­ence to secure a job for him in Monaco.

The job nev­er mate­ri­al­ized, but under French law, pros­e­cu­tors do not have to prove that a cor­rupt deal was car­ried out to secure a con­vic­tion — only that one was agreed upon. At the tri­al, held in November and December, pros­e­cu­tors accused Mr. Sarkozy of enter­ing a “cor­rup­tion pact” with Mr. Azibert, a charge he stren­u­ous­ly denied.

Mr. Azibert and Mr. Herzog were found guilty by the court on the same charges as Mr. Sarkozy, and received the same sen­tence; their lawyers also announced they would appeal. Additionally, they were found guilty on a charge of breach­ing pro­fes­sion­al con­fi­den­tial­i­ty, and Mr. Herzog was barred from prac­tic­ing law for five years.

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