Sarkozy conviction triggers right-back against “referee republic”

Tough-talking politicians from the right are used to demanding “exemplary” punishments. This week, they did not appreciate that the judiciary set an example of their master, Nicolas Sarkozy, who unleashed his rage at a special prosecutor’s office tasked with clearing French politics.

The former French president was sentenced to prison on Monday for corruption and influence, marking a legal landmark for post-war France – one that angered the political class and pushed for a “legal persecution”.

Sarkozy was found guilty of trying to bribe a judge by offering him a plum job in exchange for information about one of the many investigations that have lost him since he was ousted from office in 2012. He was sentenced to three years in prison, two of them suspended, which made him the first former head of state in post-war France to receive a custodial sentence.

The 66-year-old will be free while he appeals. If his appeal is denied, he will likely serve a year at home with an electronic tag instead of going to jail. Yet his convictions and convictions have shattered long-standing assumptions about the “immovability” of French heads of state and provoked a furious backlash against the judiciary.

“The presidency has always seen in some ways that it is above the law,” said David Lees, an associate professor of French history at the University of Warwick in the United Kingdom. In this regard, Lees told Jowharthat Monday’s verdict marked “a turning point”, paving the way for “a whole series of potential future investigations – not least about Sarkozy himself.”

Claims the authority of the judges

Among the many trials and tribunals the former right-winger faces, including accusations that he took campaign cash from the late Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, the case was considered by many on Monday in Paris court – especially in Sarkozy’s camp. – as of minor importance.

The founder of the conservative party Les Républicains received “an extremely harsh sentence based on an extremely weak case”, claimed a dissatisfied Bruno Retailleau, the leader of the party’s senate group.

Nicolas Sarkozy, pictured in Paris on March 1, just before he was sentenced. © Gonzalo Fuentes, REUTERS

Judge Christine Mée and her two magistrates, however, had a completely different view of the case and ruled that the case was “particularly serious” because it involved a former head of state who as such was intended to “guarantee the judiciary”.

The prison sentence she pronounced was “designed to shock”, an editor read in Wednesday’s edition of the French newspaper Le Monde, describing the sentence as a “sharp lesson” for a former president who once mocked magistrates as inseparable “little peas” .

Although Sarkozy’s behavior was “morally shocking”, the paper said the court’s significant ruling had major consequences, adding: “Something very political was at stake here – the judges’ authority over a former president of the republic who never stopped his attempts to discredit them . ”

‘Coup d’etat’

Given the political implications of Monday’s conviction, Le Monde claimed that Sarkozy had “paid the price” for his strategy of whipping up hostility to the judiciary “every time he’s in a tight corner.” It called on the former president to refrain from further escalating this tug-of-war, “which has not only become a trap for him but also a danger to the country.”

Within minutes of Sarkozy’s conviction, however, his allies showed their intention to further raise the ante and focus their attacks on the financial prosecutor’s office, known as the PNF, which led the case.

Les Républicain’s party leader Christian Jacob slammed the “legal prosecution” of Sarkozy and demanded an urgent investigation into the financial prosecutor’s “methods and independence”. His deputy, Guillaume Peltier, said “there is no justice (…) when the poison of politicization and bias weighs on the judiciary.”

Further to the right, Marine Le Pen, the right-wing leader who once complained about the investigations of Sarkozy and his allies, accused the judiciary of disrupting French democracy by simply persecuting opposition members. She reiterated previous demands that PNF be scrapped.

“The people are sovereign (…), not the judges, otherwise we have a judicial government,” said the leader of the National Rally (Rassemblement National), formerly the Front National. The party’s deputy leader Jordan Bardella blew up a “referee republic” after repeating her words.

Much of the right-wing press was equally difficult and published a lot of articles about the alleged political bias of judges and prosecutors, with the conservative columnist Ivan Rioufol talking about a “judicial coup”.

“Destroy the right”

Much of the criticism leveled at the judiciary alternately pointed to the prosecutors who led the indictment and the judges who ruled in the case, which signaled widespread confusion regarding their respective roles. However, there was little doubt that PNF was the main target.

The Financial Prosecutor’s Office was set up in 2013 in the wake of the “Cahuzac Affair”, a corruption scandal involving a former budget minister who was jailed for trafficking cash to a secret bank account in Switzerland. It was invested in the specific mission of hunting for “cases of fraud and ethical misconduct that undermine national unity and the republic’s exemplarity.”

While the scandal that led to the creation involved a socialist minister, Jérôme Cahuzac, who initially shunned the presidency of former President François Hollande, the PNF’s most resounding investigations have since involved prominent right-wing politicians, leading to accusations of political bias.

In an op-ed published by the conservative daily Le Figaro, Hervé Lehman, a lawyer and former investigative judge, claimed the prosecution had “been set up by Hollande to destroy the right – and has been remarkably successful in doing so.”

Lehman, a frequent critic of the PNF, said its “extremely aggressive” indictment of Sarkozy reflected its treatment of François Fillon, a former Conservative prime minister whose 2017 presidential candidacy was seriously killed by a fake job scandal involving his wife and children. Fillon was later sentenced to five years in prison, three of whom were suspended, for embezzling public funds, and the judge stated that his actions had undermined confidence in the political class. The verdict has since been overturned pending an appeal by the former prime minister.

“Without the PNF, I do not think Emmanuel Macron would be the President of the Republic today,” said Les Républicains Senator Valérie Boyer on Tuesday, reflecting a conservative view among conservatives that the current French president owes his 2017 election to Fillon’s legal misery in the last campaign. stretch.

At the time, the prosecution’s critique reflected the difficulties of the newly formed PNF as it sought to cut its teeth in a political environment hostile to judicial oversight. Fillon’s allies had argued that a parliamentary committee should first have dealt with the matter “internally”, a view shared by many lawyers, including Eric Dupond-Moretti, now Macron’s justice minister. Fillon himself spoke of an “institutional coup”.

By rejecting its complaints against the election, France’s leading magistrates’ association countered that politicians should not be exempted from investigations simply because they are candidates for an election. But accusations of bias later resurfaced after a leaked report suggesting that the former head of the PNF had come under pressure from her hierarchical superior, the Paris prosecutor, to investigate Fillon.

Wiretaps rage

In the case against Sarkozy, much of the anger has focused on the use of wiretapped conversations between the former president and his longtime lawyer Thierry Herzog, which led prosecutors to suspect that the duo had promised to help Judge Gilbert Azibert get a job in Monaco in exchange. for leaking information about another case.

Sarkozy and Herzog had complained that the confidentiality of communication between a lawyer and his client was violated by eavesdropping buttons, a view shared by many lawyers who packed the courtroom in Paris on Monday.

However, the court concluded that the use of intercepted calls was legal as long as they helped to prove evidence of corruption-related crimes. As some legal experts have noted, the privacy rule is designed to protect a client from being exposed by his or her lawyer. it does not protect them from prosecution if they commit a crime.

Jean-François Bohnert, head of the PNF, has denied allegations that his office uses “secret agent methods” – words used by Dupond-Moretti shortly before he was appointed justice minister in July last year. Speaking on RTL radio on Tuesday, Bohnert also denied allegations of politicized justice.

“The PNF does not pursue politics or admit political crimes; The PNF only knows about economic and financial crimes, ”Bohnert explained, noting that such crimes sometimes have a political connotation due to the identity of the defendants. Politicians account for only “a few dozen cases” among the more than 600 handled by his office, he stressed, noting that financial investigations led by the PNF since its inception had enabled the French state to recover “more than 10 billion euros in seized assets and fines ”.

In the case of Sarkozy and his co-spokesman, Bohnert added, “If the crimes were committed – that was the opinion of the prosecutors, now it is also the opinion of the court – then we had no choice but to continue the case and request verdicts.”

‘Error corrected’

Even as Sarkozy’s allies and supporters rush to Bohnert’s office, other commentators have welcomed Monday’s ruling as evidence of an effective justice system that can finally hold top politicians accountable.

“The independent judiciary has convicted a former president of the republic, a lawyer with a brilliant career and a judge admired by many,” said Eva Joly, a former judge and European legislator, praising a sign that “[France’s] institutions work ”. On BFM TV, former judge Laurence Vichnievsky, now a centrist legislator, dismissed the conversation about a “judge republic” and urged politicians to respect the judiciary.

Sarkozy strongly defended his behavior during the trial against all malicious intentions in his offer to help Azibert. He told the court that his political life was about “giving [people] a little help, nothing more ”.

“There is something about the networks and environment of French politics that seems to encourage this kind of behavior,” says Lees of the University of Warwick. Judging by Monday’s verdict, this type of “little help between friends” will no longer be tolerated.

In recent years, “France has committed itself to moralizing its public and political life,” political analyst Bruno Cautrès told FRANCE 24, noting that Sarkozy’s case had given the PNF unprecedented visibility. He added: “The country is lagging behind its European neighbors in this regard – the error is now being rectified.”