France's former president Nicolas Sarkozy was on Monday found guilty of corruption and influence-peddling and sentenced to a three-year jail term.
Sarkozy, 66, is however allowed to request that his prison term — of which two years are suspended — be served at home with an electronic bracelet.
He is the first former French leader to be handed out a prison sentence that includes time with no remission. His predecessor at the Elysée Palace, Jacques Chirac, had been handed a two-year suspended jail term after being found guilty of corruption while Paris Mayor.
Sarkozy's defence lawyer Jacqueline Laffont told reporters that the former president would appeal the decision and contested the conviction. Laffont said the court decision was "totally out of step" with the reality of the hearing.
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.
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.
Prosecutors had requested two years of prison and a two-year suspended sentence for all three defendants over what they said was a "corruption pact.''
"No pact has ever existed," Sarkozy told the court. "Neither in my head nor in reality.'' "I want to be cleared of that infamy,'' he added.
The case dates back to 2014 after investigators from the newly-created Parquet National Financier (National Financial Prosecutor's Office) tapped Sarkozy and Herzog's phones over allegations the former president had illegally received millions of euros from the late Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi to fund his successful 2007 presidential campaign.
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.
What investigators heard
On January 30 2014, Herzog told Sarkozy of an exchange he's had with "Gilbert", a high magistrate not instructing his case, but who apparently "had access" to confidential documents, according to AFP.
Two days later, Sarkozy demanded his lawyer call him back on a phone line he had under an assumed name, Paul Bismuth, because he suspected his official number was being tapped.
A few days later, Herzog reiterated that Azibert was optimistic about Sarkozy's prospect over the Bettencourt case. He mentioned that Azibert was interested in a high-ranking position in Monaco to which Sarkozy replied: "I'll help him".
Herzog added that Azibert had told him he did not dare ask for "a helping hand" and that he had replied: "You're kidding, with what you're doing..."
Later in the month, as Sarkozy is preparing to travel to Monaco, Herzog reportedly reminded him "to say a word for Gilbert" if possible. Sarkozy assured him he would "take the necessary steps", AFP reported but two days later, on his official line, says that he did not put in a word because "it bothers me to ask for something" of the Monegascan Minister of State whom he does not know very well.
Investigators believe the turnaround can be explained by the fact the two men had then just learnt their unofficial line was also tapped. Sarkozy refutes this.
On March 3, during a phone call with Azibert, Herzog said that "the necessary steps were taken in Monaco". "I'll tell you in person", he also said.
"We were forced to say certain things on the phone," he added, "because we learnt some things."
What happened next
The three men were charged in the summer of 2014 and the trial was initially scheduled to begin in 2015 but successive appeals have postponed it for years.
However, the Court de Cassation, which rules on question of law, said in June 2019 that the trial should proceed.
It ran from November 23 to December 10.
Sarkozy's defence lawyer, Jacqueline Laffont, argued the whole case was based on "small talk'' between a lawyer and his client.
"You don't have the beginning of a piece of evidence, not the slightest witness account, the slightest declaration,'' she told the court.
This is the first time in the history of modern France that a former leader has faced explicit corruption charges in court.
Sarkozy is not the first former president to be prosecuted, his predecessor Jacques Chirac was given a two-year suspended sentence in 2011 for embezzlement and misuse of public funds during his time as mayor of Paris.
Sarkozy's legal woes
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.