Nicolas Sarkozy appears in court on corruption charges

Former French president and two co-defendants face 10 years in jail and €1m fine

Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy has prospered in retirement. He sits on the boards of at least three major French companies. Photograph: Michel Euler

Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy has prospered in retirement. He sits on the boards of at least three major French companies. Photograph: Michel Euler

 

Swarms of photographers and television crews waited behind the police line for Nicolas Sarkozy’s arrival. The suntanned former president waved at the flashing cameras, as he had in the old days.

Sarkozy left the Élysée in 2012 after a single term in office. On Monday, he became the first French president to appear in court on charges of corruption and influence peddling.

In theory, Sarkozy and two co-defendants each risk 10 years in prison and a €1 million fine. In theory, for Sarkozy invariably seems to wriggle out of the grasp of investigating magistrates.

Sarkozy’s presidential immunity prevented him being prosecuted alongside his former finance minister Christine Lagarde for a €405 million settlement in favour of Sarkozy’s friend Bernard Tapie.

Lagarde, now president of the European Central Bank, was convicted of “negligence” for allowing the settlement, which was later rescinded.

Sarkozy sat beside his friend, lawyer and co-defendant Thierry Herzog in court on Monday. Herzog got him cleared for lack of sufficient evidence in the Bettencourt case, in which the former president was accused of abusing the feeble-mindedness of France’s richest woman to obtain campaign donations.

That leaves three active cases against Sarkozy, including the wiretaps affair, which opened on Monday.

Financial scandal

Magistrates had seized Sarkozy’s diaries in connection with the Bettencourt case. Sarkozy fought all the way to the court of cassation, France’s supreme court, to have the diaries returned to him and to prevent their use in yet another financial scandal, in which he is accused of receiving illegal campaign contributions from the late Libyan dictator Muammar Gadafy.

The indictment that precipitated the current trial says Sarkozy and Herzog behaved like “seasoned delinquents” and concluded a “pact of corruption” with Gilbert Azibert, a high-ranking magistrate at the court of cassation.

In the autumn of 2013, Sarkozy was tipped off that his and Herzog’s telephones were tapped.

Under the name Paul Bismuth, Herzog purchased two so-called burner phones for his and Sarkozy’s conversations. In an amusing twist, the real Paul Bismuth, who was at lycée with Herzog, declared himself a civil plaintiff to protest at the use of his name.

Transcripts derived from taps on “Paul Bismuth”’s telephones constitute the main evidence against Sarkozy and Herzog. They divulge repeated conversations about Herzog’s dealings with Azibert, who was allegedly their “mole” at the court of cassation.

Sarkozy and Herzog, the indictment maintains, promised Azibert that Sarkozy would use his influence as former president of France to obtain a prestigious position for Azibert in Monaco. In exchange, Azibert was to use his access to internal documents and colleagues at the supreme court to keep his benefactors posted on the progress of Sarkozy’s appeal to regain possession of his diaries.

The transcripts seem to validate that theory. In February 2014, Herzog told Sarkozy over the burner phone that Azibert coveted a post which had become available on the council of state in Monaco. “He told me, ‘I don’t dare ask. Maybe I’ll need someone to give it a little shove.’ So I told him, ‘Are you kidding, with what you’re doing?’,” Herzog said.

When Sarkozy travelled to Monaco soon after, Herzog reminded him to “put in a word for Gilbert” and “give him a helping hand”.

Burner phones

“You can tell him . . . I’m there and that I’ll make the demarche with the minister of state tomorrow or the next day,” Sarkozy replied.

But the tone of the conversations changed after Sarkozy returned to Paris. Investigating magistrates believe another Sarkozy acolyte alerted the men that the burner phones purchased under the name Paul Bismuth were also tapped.

Sarkozy has prospered in retirement. He sits on the boards of at least three major French companies and holds court in his vast office around the corner from the Élysée. Prominent members of the conservative party Les Républicains dream he will stand for the presidency again in 2022. But he remains an extremely divisive figure.

Investigating magistrates remain an obstacle to a political comeback. Sarkozy is slated for a second trial in the so-called Bygmalion affair, in which he is accused of breaking campaign finance laws, next March.

And Sarkozy remains under investigation for corruption, possession of Libyan public funds, illegal campaign financing and “associating with evildoers” in the Libyan affair. That case weakened on November 11th when Sarkozy’s chief accuser, the Lebanese middleman Ziad Takieddine, retracted testimony that he had personally handed more than €5 million in Libyan cash to Sarkozy in 2006-2007.

Azibert, now age 74 and in ill-health, did not attend Monday’s session. Lawyers for all three defendants pleaded for the trial to be postponed because Azibert’s life would be endangered if he contracted Covid-19. The prosecutor wants Azibert to participate by video conference, a solution rejected by the defendants’ lawyers. The judge adjourned the trial until Thursday, while a medical opinion is sought.

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