Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy is set to go on trial on Monday for attempting to bribe a judge in what could turn into a humiliating postscript to a political career tainted by a litany of legal misery.
Although he is not the first modern French head of state in the quay – his predecessor and political mentor Jacques Chirac was convicted of embezzlement – Sarkozy is the first to face corruption charges.
He fought furiously for six years to get the case wasted and condemned “a scandal that will go down in history”.
“I’m not a villain,” the 65-year-old, whose warlike style made him one of France’s most popular politicians, told BFM TV this month.
Prosecutors say Sarkozy promised the judge a plush job in Monaco in exchange for inside information about an investigation into allegations that Sarkozy accepted illegal payments from L’Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt for her 2007 presidential campaign.
Their case is largely based on wiretapping of telephone conversations between Sarkozy and his longtime lawyer Thierry Herzog, who the judge approved as prosecutors also investigated suspected Libyan funding of Sarkozy’s 2007 campaign.
That investigation is still ongoing, although Sarkozy was given a break this month when his main prosecutor, French-Lebanese businessman Ziad Takieddine, suddenly withdrew his claim to have delivered millions of euros in cash from Libyan dictator Moamer Gadhafi.
Sarkozy and Herzog have attacked the taps on their phones as a violation of client-lawyer law, but in 2016 a Supreme Court upheld their use as evidence.
Accused of bribery and influence, Sarkozy faces up to 10 years in prison and a maximum fine of one million euros ($ 1.2 million).
Herzog, a leading member of the Paris bar, faces the same charges as for breach of confidentiality. The trial is expected to last three weeks.
Investigators discovered that Sarkozy used an alias – Paul Bismuth – to buy a private phone to converse in secret with his lawyer.
On a dozen occasions, they discussed reaching a French top judge, Gilbert Azibert, a councilor at the Cour de Cassation, France’s highest court of appeal for criminal cases and civil cases.
Prosecutors say Azibert, who is also on trial, was given information by the court lawyer responsible for the Bettencourt investigation and to persuade him to seek a verdict in Sarkozy’s favor.
In exchange, Sarkozy would use his extensive contacts to “give a boost” to Azibert’s efforts to secure the cushy Monaco record.
“I’m getting him to move up,” Sarkozy told Herzog, according to prosecutors, who compared his actions to an “experienced criminal.”
But later, Sarkozy seemed to withdraw from approaching the Monaco authorities on Azibert’s behalf – according to prosecutors, a sign that the two men had received tips about the interceptions.
“Mr Azibert never received a speech in Monaco,” Sarkozy told BFM-TV this month – but under French law, only an offer or promise can constitute corruption.
Still in the spotlight
Sarkozy, a trained lawyer, claims that the French judiciary has used a vendetta against him in retaliation for his attempts to limit the judges’ powers and tell them that they were too lenient with criminals.
He is due to return to court in March 2021 along with 13 other people over allegations of campaign finance violations during his failed 2012 term.
Prosecutors accuse Sarkozy’s team of using a fake invoice program organized by PR company Bygmalion to spend almost 43 million euros on the lavish driving – almost twice as high as the legal limit.
The long-running legal troubles helped lower his comeback bid for the 2017 presidential vote, but Sarkozy has surfaced on a wave of popularity since announcing his retirement from politics in 2018 and squeezing the meat with enthusiastic crowds at public appearances.
Rows of fans lined up over the summer to get him to sign his latest memoir, “The Time of Storms,” which topped the bestseller list for several weeks.