The former French president Nicolas Sarkozy was sentenced to one year in prison on Thursday for the illegal financing of his failed campaign for re-election in 2012.
Sarkozy did not attend court, but his lawyer, Thierry Herzog, said they spoke on the telephone and Sarkozy asked him to file an appeal immediately.
It was the second time this year that Sarkozy has been sentenced to prison. Last March he was convicted of attempting to bribe a supreme court judge in the hope of obtaining information about yet another investigation into the financing of his 2007 campaign. He also appealed that sentence of three years in prison, of which two years were suspended.
Sarkozy's third wife, the singer and former supermodel Carla Bruni, denounced the March verdict as "a senseless witch hunt".
No other former French president has received a custodial prison sentence, though Jacques Chirac was given a suspended sentence for a bogus job scam at town hall when he was mayor of Paris, prior to his presidency.
Thursday’s conviction of Sarkozy was considered particularly significant because it was the first pertaining to offences committed by a president while in office.
It is extremely unlikely that Sarkozy (66) will ever go to prison. French law allows judges to commute to confinement at home with an electronic bracelet any prison sentences of less than two years for offences committed before 2020. The court on Thursday specified that this would be the case for Sarkozy.
Sarkozy will not be required to wear an electronic bracelet before his appeal is heard, probably in 2023. His appeal for the March conviction should be heard late next year.
The convictions are more about shaming than real punishment. Thursday's sentence was handed down as France embarks on a presidential campaign, and serves as a warning to candidates that times have changed.
Judge Caroline Viguier said Sarkozy continued organising campaign rallies after he was twice notified in writing that he risked surpassing legal spending limits. "It was not his first campaign. He was an experienced candidate," she said.
In her summing-up, prosecutor Vanessa Perrée said, “Mr Sarkozy claimed he signed his campaign accounts with his eyes closed, without even reading them. But the law is very clear. The candidate is required to submit accurate accounts.”
Perrée also condemned what she called Sarkozy’s “total disrespect”. He attended only one day of the five-week trial in May and June, when he was summoned to testify. He dismissed the charges as “a fable” and denigrated former associates.
In 2012 presidential campaign funding was capped at €22 million. Sarkozy's campaign cost €42.8 million. The excess expenditure was masked with fake invoices by an events company called Bygmalion, and by shifting millions of euro in costs to Sarkozy's conservative party, the UMP. The party has since renamed itself Les Républicains to distance itself from the embarrassment of the Bygmalion scandal.
Thirteen co-defendants – campaign staff, employees of Bygmalion or the UMP – were also convicted on Thursday. They faced more serious charges of falsifying documents, abuse of confidence and fraud, as well as complicity in illegal campaign financing. Their sentences ranged from two to 3½ years in prison, of which one to two years were suspended. Four executives at Bygmalion were fined €100,000, and two campaign officials were fined €60,000.
The anti-corruption lawyer William Bourdon said Sarkozy "spit on citizens and the law" by disregarding campaign finance regulations.
"He cheated to get elected. The republic honours itself by judging the powerful," said Julien Bayou, the national secretary of the environmentalist party EELV.
But conservative politicians closed ranks around Sarkozy. Christian Jacob, the president of Les Républicains, expressed the party's "affection and support ... as well as our immense pride at having had him as president of the republic".
Two presidential candidates who served as cabinet ministers under Sarkozy, Xavier Bertrand, the president of the northern France region; and Valérie Pécresse, president of the Ile-de-France region, which includes Paris, were effusive.
Bertrand declared his “friendship” and “esteem” for “President Nicolas Sarkozy”. Pécresse said “Nicolas Sarkozy was a great president of the republic. I was proud to belong to his government and that he had confidence in me.”
Sarkozy’s name has been associated with a dozen investigations involving dodgy financial practices. He has so far been convicted twice, seen two cases dismissed and claimed presidential immunity in two others.
Of the cases still pending, the most serious is an investigation into charges of “membership in a criminal conspiracy, corruption, illegal campaign financing and benefiting from embezzled public funds” when Sarkozy allegedly received campaign funds from the late Libyan dictator Muammar Gadafy in 2007.