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Former French President Sarkozy Convicted of Corruption

Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy was found guilty on Monday of corruption and influence peddling, making him the second French president since World War II to be convicted of a crime.

(CN) — Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy was found guilty on Monday of corruption and influence peddling, making him the second French president since World War II to be convicted of a crime. 

A Paris court gave Sarkozy, 66, a three-year sentence, but he is unlikely to spend any time in prison. Two years of the sentence were suspended, and Sarkozy can serve one year wearing an electronic bracelet at home. 

The sentence shocked the French political world and presumably ends any aspirations Sarkozy may have had to reenter politics by throwing his hat in the ring for next year's presidential race. 

Despite corruption probes against him, Sarkozy remains very popular among right-wing voters and has been seen as a possible contender to lead Les Republicains, France's traditional conservative party. The party has struggled to find a candidate to run against President Emmanuel Macron. Macron and Sarkozy are on friendly terms, and Macron has turned to the political right and elevated former Sarkozy officials to top positions.

In delivering their verdict, a panel of judges said there was “serious evidence” that Sarkozy and his lawyer tried to get a judge on France’s high appeals court to provide information about a separate probe into suspicions that Sarkozy's successful 2007 presidential campaign received illegal payments from France’s richest woman, L’Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt. In exchange for the information, Sarkozy allegedly promised to use his influence to get the judge a plum magistrate's job in Monaco. 

After the verdict was read aloud to a stunned courtroom, Sarkozy left the Paris tribunal without delivering a statement. His two co-defendants — Sarkozy’s lawyer Thierry Herzog and Gilbert Azibert, the magistrate at the appeals court — received similar sentences. 

Sarkozy is expected to appeal the ruling, which would place the sentence on hold. All three men have denied any wrongdoing.

Sarkozy denounced the case against him as a “scandal” and claimed the French judiciary wanted to convict him out of a vendetta. He accused the judiciary of disliking him because he tried to limit their powers when he was president and accused them of being soft on crime.

During a two-week trial in November, Sarkozy became the first French head of state to take the stand during the Fifth Republic, a period that began in 1958 when France adopted a strong presidential system of government.

Sarkozy’s predecessor and mentor, the late Jacques Chirac, was convicted in 2011 for embezzling public funds during his time as a mayor of Paris by creating ghost jobs at city hall to fund his party. Chirac was tried in absentia due to his poor mental health. Chirac was the first head of state to be tried since Marshal Philippe Petain was found guilty of treason in 1945 at the end of World War II for collaborating with Nazi Germany.

Sarkozy served as president for one term between 2007 and 2012, when he lost to Francois Hollande, the Socialist candidate.

In 2016, he staged an unsuccessful political comeback. Even though he has said he doesn’t want to get back into politics, there was a lot of speculation he might jump back into politics after his memoir, “The Time of Storms,” was published last summer and made it onto the bestseller lists for weeks.

Since he left office in 2012, Sarkozy has been hounded by several judicial investigations.

In this case, the prosecution relied on private conversations Sarkozy and Herzog had in 2014 using secret mobile phones they allegedly believed would not be tapped. But investigators were listening to their conversations, and those wiretaps were at the heart of the case, known in France as the “wiretapping affair.”

Sarkozy and Herzog argued it was illegal to listen to their conversations, which they said fell under lawyer-client confidentiality. But that argument was shot down in pretrial motions. Sarkozy also argued he never sought to help Azibert, who did not get the job in Monaco that he wanted and later retired. But investigative judges alleged Sarkozy’s promise to help Azibert constituted a crime.

This is unlikely to be the end of Sarkozy’s appearances in court.

While legal proceedings looking into allegedly illegal contributions to his 2007 presidential campaign from Bettencourt have been dropped, he is fighting allegations that he took millions of dollars in cash for that campaign from former Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi’s regime. After taking office, Sarkozy invited Gadhafi to the Elysee Palace, sparking widespread protests.

Probes into illegal payments he allegedly received for the 2007 election campaign led to the wiretapping of his phones after he left the presidency.

In 2018, Sarkozy was charged with taking bribes in the Libyan case, concealing the embezzlement of Libyan public funds and illegal campaign financing.

Sarkozy denies the charges and he’s seeking to invoke head-of-state immunity on some of the counts against him.

He and his close associates also face charges of concocting fake invoices to hide unauthorized overspending during his failed 2012 reelection campaign. Sarkozy and fellow Les Republicains members are suspected of spending $50.7 million, which is nearly twice the maximum authorized. He is expected to appear in court later this month in that case.

His legal troubles deepened in January when prosecutors opened a new influence-peddling probe. Mediapart, a French news outlet, said the probe is looking at a $3.6 million payment Russian insurance firm Reso-Garantia made to Sarkozy in 2019.

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

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