Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy has been sentenced to three years in jail for corruption charges, after he was found guilty of trying to bribe a magistrate.
Two years of the three-year sentence will be suspended, and it is unlikely the former President will spend a single day in jail.
The remaining one-year prison term can be served at home under house arrest, in which Sarkozy will be required to wear an electronic tag.
Sarkozy was accused of offering to boost a high magistrate’s chance of obtaining a promotion in Monaco back in 2014 in return for leaked information about a judicial enquiry against him.
At the time, Sarkozy, who had been ousted from office by François Hollande two years prior, was also being investigated for allegedly taking illegal payments from billionaire Liliane Bettencourt, the heiress to the L’Oréal empire, to fund his presidential aspirations.
Phone conversations recorded between Sarkozy and Herzog made investigators suspect the former French leader had offered to use his contacts to get the judge Azibert a coveted position in Monaco, in exchange for information about the investigation into the Bettencourt case.
The background to the corruption case
Sarkozy was on trial with two co-defendants, his lawyer Thierry Herzog and Gilbert Azibert, a senior judge.
The case centred on phone conversations between Sarkozy and Herzog that were taped by police in 2014.
Investigators were looking into claims that Sarkozy had accepted illicit payments from the L’Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt for his 2007 presidential campaign.
The prosecution convinced the court that Sarkozy and Herzog had sought to bribe Azibert with a prestigious job in Monaco in return for information about that investigation.
The Bettencourt affair involves allegations of illegal payments made by billionaire heiress Liliane Bettencourt to François-Marie Banier and members of the French government associated with Nicolas Sarkozy in 2010.
Liliane Henriette Charlotte Bettencourt was a French heiress, socialite and businesswoman. She was one of the principal shareholders of L’Oréal. At the time of her death, she was the richest woman, and the 14th richest person in the world, with a net worth of US$44.3 billion.
Bettencourt was declared unfit to run her own affairs in 2011 after a medical report showing she had suffered from “mixed dementia” and “moderately severe” Alzheimer’s disease since 2006. The court awarded her daughter Bettencourt’s estimated wealth of 17 billion euros (20 billion dollars) and 33 percent stake in L’Oreal.
In June 2010, Ms. Bettencourt became embroiled in a high-level French political scandal after other details of the tape recordings made by her butler became public. The tapes allegedly picked up conversations between Bettencourt and her financial adviser, Patrice de Maistre, which indicate that Bettencourt may have avoided paying taxes by keeping a substantial amount of cash in undeclared Swiss bank accounts.
The tapes also allegedly captured a conversation between Bettencourt and Éric Woerth (then Minister of Labour), who was soliciting a job for his wife managing Bettencourt’s wealth, while he was acting as budget minister and running a high-profile campaign to catch wealthy tax evaders. Moreover, Ms Bettencourt received a €30 million tax rebate while Mr Woerth was budget minister.
In July 2010, the scandal appeared to widen after Bettencourt’s former accountant, Claire Thibout, alleged in an interview with the French investigative website Mediapart, that conservative French politicians were frequently given envelopes stuffed with cash at the Bettencourt’s mansion in Neuilly-sur-Seine. She alleged that Mr Woerth, while acting as treasurer for the Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), was given an envelope containing €150,000 in cash in March 2007 towards the presidential campaign of Nicolas Sarkozy.
Following these allegations, French police raided the home and office of Mr de Maistre, who heads Clymène, the company owned by Ms Bettencourt to manage her wealth. Political donations are limited to €7,500 for political parties and €4,600 for individuals. Contributions above €150 must be paid by cheque with the donor clearly identified.
In October 2010, the offices of two major French newspapers (Le Monde, Le Point) and those of Mediapart were broken into and the computers containing Bettencourt affair’s files were stolen.
In 2013, the former French president Nicolas Sarkozy, a former minister, Éric Woerth, a prosecutor, Philippe Courroye and the former director of the DCRI, Bernard Squarcini, were targeted by a procedure of indictment in diverse points of the affair.
On October 7, 2013, French authorities removed Sarkozy from the list of names to be charged in the case.
Sarkozy’s legal woes have only just begun
Sarkozy will face another trial later this month on charges of illegal financing of his 2012 presidential campaign. His conservative party is suspected of having spent €42.8 million, almost twice the maximum authorised, to finance the campaign.
In another investigation, Sarkozy is accused of having taken millions from then-Libyan dictator Muammar Gadhafi to illegally finance his 2007 campaign. He was handed preliminary charges of passive corruption, illegal campaign financing, concealment of stolen assets from Libya and criminal association. He has denied wrongdoing.
Although he was charged with corruption and influence-peddling over the Bettencourt case, Sarkozy was cleared over the allegations he received money from the now late heiress, due to a lack of evidence.
Sarkozy, 66, is the first former French president to get a custodial sentence.
In the ruling, Judge Christine Mée said the conservative politician “knew what [he] was doing was wrong”, adding that his actions and those of his lawyer had given the public “a very bad image of justice”.
The crimes were specified as influence-peddling and violation of professional secrecy.
It is a legal landmark for post-war France. The only precedent was the trial of Sarkozy’s predecessor Jacques Chirac, who got a two-year suspended sentence in 2011 for having arranged bogus jobs at Paris City Hall for allies when he was Paris mayor. Chirac died in 2019.
His lawyer says he will appeal. Sarkozy will remain free during that process which could take years.
If Sarkozy’s appeal is unsuccessful, he could serve a year at home with an electronic tag, rather than go to prison.
Sarkozy, who was president from 2007 to 2012, firmly denied all the allegations against him during the 10-day trial that took place last year.
Sarkozy’s lawyer, Thierry Herzog, and the senior judge, Gilbert Azibert, also denied wrongdoing. Both have been handed the same sentence as Sarkozy. Herzog, who was also slapped with a five-year professional ban, has appealed the ruling.
Sarkozy has repeatedly denied accusations of corruption, said he welcomed the tribunal as a chance to “clean my name”.