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Nicolas Sarkozy: Former French president on trial for corruption

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Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy attends a ceremony in Nice, southern France on Oct.29, 2020
Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy attends a ceremony in Nice, southern France on Oct.29, 2020   -   Copyright  Valery Hache; Pool via AP
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Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy is on trial on Monday for alleged corruption and influence-peddling.

Sarkozy is 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's lawyer, Thierry Herzog, and the senior judge, Gilbert Azibert, are also standing trial.

If found guilty, the former French leader faces up to ten years in jail and a fine of a million euros.

The background

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 is optimistic about Sarkozy's prospect over the Bettencourt case. He mentions that Azibert is 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 is now scheduled to run from November 23 to December 10.

This is the first time in the history of modern France that a former leader will face 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.

French media have reported that the trial is likely to be suspended on Monday with Azibert, 73, arguing his health does not allow him to appear in front of judges.

Sarkozy's legal woes

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.

The investigation into the alleged 2007 illegal campaign financing from Libya is however still ongoing. Last month, investigators added a charge for conspiracy to the corruption, concealment of embezzled [Libyan] public funds, and illicit campaign financing charges issued in 2018.

The former president reacted to the new charge by once more proclaiming his innocence.

He is also scheduled to stand trial next year for illicit campaign financing, this time for his failed attempt to secure a second term in 2012.