Bribery? Historic trial of France’s ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy

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An unprecedented trial begins in Paris: French ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy has to answer to the court on suspicion of bribery and influence. There are severe penalties.

Behind the incomprehensible judicial abbreviation “NSTH” hides a process of historic proportions in France: ex-head of state Nicolas Sarkozy has to answer before the court together with his longtime lawyer Thierry Herzog for suspected bribery and unauthorized influence. The two 65-year-olds each face a prison sentence of up to ten years and a fine of one million euros.

The Paris process, which is due to last until December 10th, is considered unprecedented. The “Fifth Republic”, founded in 1958 by the legendary Charles de Gaulle, has not yet made such a serious accusation against a former president. But it is not the first time that a former gentleman of the Elysée Palace has been charged.

Sarkozy: “I’m just combative”

Sarkozy’s predecessor Jacques Chirac was sentenced to a suspended sentence of two years for embezzlement and breach of trust during his time as Paris Mayor. Chirac did not have to appear in court at the time because of health problems. His successor, however, will come: “I’m just combative,” said the affair-ridden Sarkozy recently to the news channel BFMTV. “I will go to the trial. I will answer any questions.”

Even before the start of the unusual court proceedings, there was speculation about a possible interruption: Another defendant, the 73-year-old lawyer Gilbert Azibert, applied for a stay for health reasons, the media reported. The court confirms that Azibert’s lawyer has filed a motion.

Sarkozy is said to have wanted classified information

Before the 32nd Chamber of the Paris Criminal Court there is a complicated affair that is said to have occurred after Sarkozy’s departure from power. “Sarko”, as he is often called, is said to have tried in early 2014 to obtain secret information about another affair from the lawyer Azibert through his lawyer.

Azibert was then the Advocate General at the Court of Cassation, the country’s highest court. In return, the ex-president is said to have offered to support the lawyer in applying for a post in the Principality of Monaco.

Legality of evidence disputed

The allegations against Sarkozy are based on the use of tapped phone calls between the politician and lawyer Herzog. There had been a heated argument about the legality of this wiretapping. Sarkozy rejects the allegations against him and calls the telephone surveillance scandalous: “If you were to behave like that in the world of Mr. Putin – but we are in the land of human rights,” he told BFMTV with a view to Kremlin chief Vladimir Putin.

Sarkozy and Herzog are likely to be asked in court why they used cell phones for the calls, which were purchased under the pseudonym Paul Bismuth. The devices were bugged at the time because there was suspicion that Libya had given money for Sarkozy’s 2007 election campaign. At that time Sarkozy won the duel for the highest office against the socialist challenger Ségolène Royal as the bearer of hope of the civil right.

Sarkozy rejects Libya allegations

The judiciary has been investigating this matter for years, some speak of a state affair. Sarkozy vehemently denied the allegations that illegal money flowed from the regime of the then Libyan ruler Muammar al-Gaddafi. Only recently did a crucial witness exonerate the former head of state. “Is it normal that a former President of the Republic has been dragged through the mud for eight years (…)?” Asked the 65-year-old in an interview with BFMTV.

A lawsuit looms in this opaque affair as well. Because of expenses for Sarkozy’s unsuccessful re-election campaign in 2012, there will be a court hearing in March. The legal upper limit for these costs was allegedly exceeded by a good 20 million euros.

Despite his legal problems, Sarkozy is not an outlawed man in his home country. On the contrary. His memoir “Le Temps des Tempêtes” (“The Time of the Storms”) became a bestseller in the summer. The son of a Hungarian aristocrat signed copies in bookshops. In the middle of the month he could be seen on the Paris Arc de Triomphe at the official celebration to commemorate the end of the First World War – at the side of successor François Hollande and incumbent Emmanuel Macron.

In the crisis-ridden camp of the bourgeois right, there is still hope of a comeback: “Many of us want Nicolas Sarkozy to return,” said the influential Conservative MP Eric Ciotti, according to the daily newspaper “Le Monde”. The party Les Républicains is desperately looking for a draft horse for the presidential election in one and a half years. “None of the potential candidates has the snout of a president” – this harsh judgment puts the bulletin “Le Canard Enchaîné” in Sarkozy’s mouth. His word carries weight – for many he is still considered the “godfather of the right”.

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