On Wednesday 17 May, the Paris Court of Appeal upheld the three-year prison sentence of former French president Nicolas Sarkozy for corruption and influence trafficking, which had already been handed down in the first instance in March 2021. will be confirmed in the Cassation, Sarkozy will have to serve a year under house arrest, given that two years of his sentence have been suspended with probation.
It is the first time that a former French president has been sentenced so severely: the only one before him to have found himself in a similar situation was Jaques Chirac, who was sentenced to two years in prison in 2011 for misappropriation of public funds, but the sentence had been entirely suspended.
It is not the only judicial case in which Sarkozy has been or still is accused. A part of public opinion and of the party he founded, Les Républicains (The Republicans), maintains that Sarkozy is the victim of harassment by the French judiciary. Many others – including the candidate for her party in the 2022 presidential elections, Valérie Pécresse, who was hoping for an endorsement from her that didn’t happen – however deny this line of defense.
Following the latest sentence, the French newspaper Le Monde summarized all the trials and investigations against the former president, who has already been convicted in two cases, even if not definitively, while the investigations are still open o they have been archived in all the others.
Wiretapping Case (or Azibert-Bismuth Case)
Sentenced in first instance and on appeal
The May 17 sentence, which also rendered Sarkozy ineligible for three years, refers to events dating back to 2014, when Sarkozy was already former president (he remained in office from 2007 to 2012). According to the prosecution, he would have tried to obtain favors and confidential information from the French magistrate Gilbert Azibert regarding another case involving him, the Bettencourt case, offering in exchange to use his contacts to guarantee Azibert an honorary position in the principality of Monaco .
The accusation is based on conversations that took place between Sarkozy and his lawyer Thierry Herzog on two prepaid cell phones purchased under the pseudonym “Paul Bismuth” (hence the name by which the case has become known). These conversations had been intercepted as part of the investigations, still ongoing, that the judiciary was carrying out on alleged illicit financing for Sarkozy’s 2007 electoral campaign coming from Libya.
In addition to Sarkozy, his lawyer and judge Azibert were also sentenced, again to three years, two of which were suspended. Sarkozy’s lawyers have presented an appeal to the Court of Cassation, an action which temporarily suspends the execution of the sentence.
In the caso Bettencourt ten men, including Nicolas Sarkozy, had been accused of abuse of weakness, trafficking in illicit influences and receiving stolen goods against the 87-year-old heiress of the L’Oréal group Liliane Bettencourt. Sarkozy’s trial was dropped in 2013 due to lack of evidence, despite the fact that during the investigation his wife’s home and old law firm were raided and his diaries confiscated.
Accounts of the 2012 campaign (or Bygmalion Case)
Sentenced in first instance, appeal November 2023
On 30 September 2021, Sarkozy was sentenced by the Paris court to one year’s imprisonment, of which six months were suspended, for “illegal financing of the electoral campaign” for the 2012 presidential elections, in which he presented himself as outgoing president and was defeated by Socialist Party candidate François Hollande.
The trial involved a system of false invoices and agreements between the Union pour un mouvement populaire (UMP) – Sarkozy’s party which in 2015 became Les Républicains – and the Bygmalion communication agency, responsible for organizing meetings during the electoral campaign. This system served to hide the UMP’s exceeding of the legal limit for electoral expenses, which in 2012 was 22.5 million euros. According to the independent online newspaper Mediapart, which published a summary of the judicial investigation, Sarkozy would have exceeded this limit of 24.5 million euros.
According to the indictment, on March 7, 2012 Sarkozy was informed of the risk of exceeding the authorized expenditure, but he ignored it. In addition to Sarkozy, the other thirteen defendants were all found guilty of “complicity in the illegal financing of an electoral campaign”. Bastien Millot, co-president of the Bygmalion group, was sentenced to three years in prison, of which 18 months suspended, and a fine of 100,000 euros. Thirteen of the fourteen convicted, including Sarkozy, have appealed. The appeal process will begin on November 8, 2023 and will last one month.
Suspicions of Libyan funding in 2007
On May 10, a few days before the appeal sentence for the Azibert-Bismuth case, the national financial prosecution had requested the indictment of Sarkozy and some of his close collaborators, accusing them of having financed part of the 2007 presidential electoral campaign (which Sarkozy won with 53 percent of the votes in the runoff) with undeclared funds from the regime of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, who died in 2011.
At the moment there is no overwhelming evidence of these loans, but the set of “serious or corroborating proofs” (documents, testimonies, financial elements) have led the judiciary to accuse Sarkozy of “passive corruption”, “illegal financing of an electoral campaign” , “management of Libyan public funds” and “criminal association”.
During the hearing in October 2020, Sarkozy denied that there was any basis for these accusations, declaring that «the least Libyan cent has never been taken, either directly or indirectly, either in cash or by bank transfers, to finance my campaign ».
According to the prosecution, however, “if on the one hand it appears clear that not all the Libyan funds initially intended (for the electoral campaign) were used for this purpose”, on the other hand “the opaque circuits for the circulation of Libyan funds have led to disbursements in cash in times and chronologies compatible with a hidden use”. The required penalty is ten years’ imprisonment. The investigating judges have one month to decide whether or not to follow the prosecutor’s charge.
The Karachi case
With the idea of running for the 1995 presidential elections, the then right-wing prime minister Edouard Balladur, in whose government Sarkozy was budget minister, allegedly granted huge commissions for the sale of arms to Pakistan and Saudi Arabia and used part money to finance his electoral campaign, of which Sarkozy was also a spokesman.
In February 2014, the judges in charge of the financial aspects of the Karachi case deemed it necessary to hear Sarkozy as an assisted witness, i.e. as a witness who has the right to a lawyer and who, unlike a normal witness, can decide not to answer questions about to trials against him or whose answers could incriminate him. Indeed, in May 2017 he was questioned as to why he had approved those controversial sales contracts.
In June 2020, the criminal court handed down six convictions, with an appeal trial scheduled for spring 2024. In 2021, Edouard Balladur and François Léotard, then defense minister, were acquitted by the Court of Justice of the Republic, composed of MPs and senior judges.
In the 1995 elections Balladur had finished third and Jacques Chirac had been elected, who also won in 2002. We talk about the Karachi case because in 2002 a suicide bombing killed fourteen people in Karachi, Pakistan, including eleven French employees of the Department of shipbuilding that was on its way to the assembly site of French submarines purchased from Pakistan. If the attack was originally attributed to al Qaeda, it is more likely that it was a revenge by Pakistani officials deprived by Jacques Chirac of the commissions they were accustomed to receiving with Balladur.
On the sidelines of the Karachi trial, Sarkozy was also investigated for “violation of the secrecy of the investigation” due to a 2011 government press release that reported the progress of the judicial proceeding. In 2023, the Paris Court of Appeal authorized three magistrates to investigate the matter.
Under preliminary investigation
The judiciary is investigating a payment of 500 thousand euros received by Sarkozy in early 2020 due to a consultancy contract with the Russian insurance group Reso-Garantia. In the summer of 2020, the national financial prosecutor had opened a preliminary investigation into Sarkozy, still ongoing, for “trafficking of illicit influences”.
According to Mediapart, which broke the news in early 2021, “the courts are trying to ascertain whether the former head of state acted only as a consultant, which would be perfectly legal, or whether he engaged in potentially criminals on behalf of Russian oligarchs”.