Former French President Sarkozy Goes on Trial

The 65-year-old former president stands accused of trying to get a judge to give him information about a probe into suspicions that his 2007 presidential campaign received illegal payments.

Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy attends a ceremony in Nice, France, last month. (Valery Hache; Pool via AP, File)

(CN) — Nicolas Sarkozy, France’s popular former conservative president, became the first French head of state in modern times to take the stand on Monday in a trial where he is accused of corruption.  

The trial opened last week but immediately was delayed after an elderly co-defendant, a judge, said he was at risk of getting infected with the coronavirus by going back and forth to the courtroom.

Shortly after the trial reopened on Monday afternoon in Paris’ main courthouse, Sarkozy was allowed to speak and the former president, a lawyer by training, struck a combative tone. He denounced the charges against him and cast himself as the victim of six years of persecution by vindictive investigative judges.

“I do not intend to be blamed for things that I did not commit,” Sarkozy said, according to French media reports. He said he was not “rotten”, and he called the trial a “scandal.”

Sarkozy claims the French judiciary wants to convict him out of a vendetta. He suggests the judiciary doesn’t like him because he tried to limit their powers and accused them of being soft on crime.

This is the first time a French head of state has taken the stand during the Fifth Republic, a period that began in 1958 when France adopted a strong presidential system of government.

Sarkozy’s predecessor, the late Jacques Chirac, was convicted in 2011 for embezzling public funds during his time as a mayor of Paris, but he 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’s trial centers on allegations that the 65-year-old former president tried to get a judge on France’s high appeals court to give him information about a probe into suspicions that his successful 2007 presidential campaign received illegal payments from France’s richest woman, L’Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt.

His lawyer, Thierry Herzog, and the magistrate, Gilbert Azibert, are standing trial along with Sarkozy. Azibert, 73, got the trial postponed after he raised concerns about the risk he faced from getting infected by the coronavirus. But judges ordered him to appear Monday after a medical exam found no reason for him not to stand trial.

All three men face up to 10 years in prison and a maximum fine of $1.2 million. They deny any wrongdoing. Sarkozy and Herzog allegedly promised Azibert a job in Monaco in exchange for providing information. Sarkozy also faces a charge of influence peddling, a crime punishable by up to five years in prison and a $600,000 fine.

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

The prosecution’s case is built around 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 are at the heart of the case, known in France as the “wiretapping affair.” Sarkozy and Herzog argue it was illegal to listen to their conversations, which they said fell under lawyer-client confidentiality. That argument was shot down in pretrial motions, though it is likely to be raised again during the trial.

Sarkozy also argues he never sought to help Azibert, who did not get the job in Monaco that he wanted and later retired. But investigative judges allege Sarkozy’s promise to help Azibert constituted a crime.

This may be only the start 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.

A French-Lebanese businessman, Ziad Takieddine, claimed he brought suitcases filled with cash to Sarkozy’s chief of staff. But Takieddine retracted those statements earlier this month.

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 his party, Les Republicains, are suspected of spending $50.7 million, which is nearly twice the maximum authorized. A trial in that case is scheduled for next year.

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. Still, he remains popular in France and an influential figure in right-wing circles, where he is considered a possible contender for the 2022 presidential elections even though he has said he doesn’t want to get back into politics. This summer, he published his memoir, “The Time of Storms,” and it was on the bestseller lists for weeks.

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

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