Nicolas Sarkozy was on Monday sentenced to three years in prison, two suspended, for seeking to bribe a judge.
The guilty verdict will be a huge blow to the former French president, who faces a string of corruption cases, and makes him the first president since France’s Nazi collaborationist leader Marshall Philippe Pétain to be handed a prison term.
Sarkozy, who was president from 2007 to 2012, looked visibly stunned as the court found him guilty of “corruption and influence peddling” for having tried to illegally obtain information from a senior magistrate in 2014 about a legal action in which he was involved.
However, it is unlikely that the conservative 66-year-old will physically go to jail, a punishment that in France usually applies to jail terms of above two years. Instead, he will likely be entitled to request to be detained at home with an electronic bracelet.
His co-defendants, lawyer Thierry Herzog and judge Gilbert Azibert, were handed the same sentence but also found guilty respectively of violating professional secrecy and concealing that violation. Herzog was banned from the bar for five years.
Handing down the ruling, presiding judge Christine Mée said there was a sufficient “body of evidence” pointing to a “pact of corruption” between Sarkozy, his lawyer and the judge. They had “common interests towards the same aim, namely to obtain a decision in Nicolas Sarkozy’s favour”.
The court said it was clear that the ex-premier and his lawyer had offered a plum post in Monaco to judge Azibert in return for information on an inquiry into claims Sarkozy had received illicit payments from late L’Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt during his 2007 presidential campaign.
As “guarantor of the independence of the justice system”, Sarkozy had “used his status as former president to reward a magistrate who had served his personal interests,” she said. “On top of all that, Mr Sarkozy is a lawyer.”
In breaking the law, he had “gravely damaged public trust” in the impartiality of France’s justice system.
Prosecutors had called for Sarkozy to be jailed for four years and serve a minimum of two. The graft and influence-peddling charges – among several legal cases against Sarkozy – carry a maximum sentence of 10 years and a fine of $1.65 million.
Sarkozy and Herzog have appealed the sentence.
Sarkozy’s entourage rushed to his defence after the ruling, with wife Carla Bruni-Sarkozy saying: “What insane relentlessness. The fight continues. The truth will see the light of day.”
Christian Jacob, head of Sarkozy’s Right-wing party, The Republicans, tweeted his “unstinting support for Nicolas Sarkozy” saying “the severity of the sentence is totally out of proportion”.
Sarkozy had denied any wrongdoing, insisting that he had been “dragged through the mud for six years” and had “never committed the slightest act of corruption”.
The state’s case was based on wiretaps of conversations between Sarkozy and his lawyer.
Prosecutors argued that the ex-president had employed the methods of a “hardened delinquent” by using a secret private telephone line under the pseudonym Paul Bismuth to evade detection.
One conversation “overwhelmingly” showed that Sarkozy had promised to intervene to get Azibert the Monaco post, said prosecutor Celine Guillet.
Sarkozy’s lawyer Jacqueline Laffont had argued that “we are light years away from a pact of corruption” and that the case against her client was a “desert of proof”.
The verdict seriously compromises Sarkozy’s legacy and any hopes of a political comeback. The ex-president, who has enjoyed a surge in popularity since releasing his bestselling memoirs, has hinted he could return to the frontline in case of a grave national crisis.
He also faces a string of other legal woes.
He faces charges over allegations that he received around $86m in funding from Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi towards his 2007 election campaign, and he is also accused of fraudulently overspending on his failed 2012 reelection bid. The so-called Bygmalion trial is due to start on March 17.
In January, Sarkozy was also placed under preliminary investigation for “influence peddling” over a $5m contract with a Russian insurance company.
The probe by the national financial prosecutor, PNF, is in relation to a contract the Right-winger signed with Russian group Reso-Garaantia.
He is under preliminary investigation for “influence peddling and concealing a crime or misdemeanour”. Under French law, this means judges suspect potential wrongdoing but have insufficient evidence to press charges.
Sarkozy’s political mentor Jacques Chirac, was put on trial after leaving office, but he was excused from having to attend his 2011 corruption trial because of ill health.
Chirac received a two-year suspended sentence over the creation of ghost jobs at the Paris city hall to fund his party when he was mayor.
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