Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s slim chances of returning to frontline politics were dealt a potentially fatal blow after he was found guilty of corruption by a Paris court.
The 66-year-old was sentenced to a one-year prison term for offering to pull strings to help a magistrate land a prestigious job in return for a favor — although the French legal system means he’s unlikely to serve jail time. His lawyer and the now-retired court official were also convicted.
“Sarkozy used his status as former French president,” said Presiding Judge Christine Mée on Monday as she read out the court’s decision. She said the wrongdoing he committed was “particularly serious” and harmed the rule of law.
The conviction of Sarkozy — who still enjoys some popularity on the right — is another setback to a political career that stuttered after his failed 2012 re-election bid. The judgment puts the former president on the back-foot weeks before he’s due back in court on separate charges that he illegally exceeded campaign-spending limits ahead of his electoral defeat.
Sarkozy climbed the ladder of French politics at a breathtaking pace. Mayor of a rich Paris suburban town before he hit 30 and elected to parliament shortly after, Sarkozy took his first ministerial role in 1993. Known for his brash style, the former president made an unsuccessful comeback in 2016, losing the contest to be the centre-right presidential candidate in the following year’s election. In recent months, many Sarkozy supporters hoped he would stage another return.
French Senator Valerie Boyer from Sarkozy’s Les Republicains party told BFM TV on Monday that the judgment means that “it will be difficult” for him to take part in the next presidential campaign, “as many French hoped.” The five-year term of President Emmanuel Macron — who can seek re-election — is due to end in 2022.
Sarkozy left the courtroom without making any comments shortly after the ruling was read out. His wife, model-turned-singer Carla Bruni, posted on Instagram that “the fight goes on, the truth will emerge.” She criticized a “senseless persecution” of her husband.
While he isn’t the first former French president to go on trial in modern times, Sarkozy is the first to get a non-suspended sentence. The late Jacques Chirac was too sick to attend court before he was found guilty in 2011 of misusing Paris city funds, and convicted to a two-year suspended term.
Monday’s judgment centers on tapped phone calls of Sarkozy dating back to 2014, after he’d left high office.
Sarkozy was heard telling his lawyer that he would put in a good word to help the magistrate Gilbert Azibert clinch a sought-after position in Monaco if he helped in a legal fight at France’s top court to stop investigators using the former president’s diaries.
In court, Sarkozy had dismissed the conversations as “chatter” that was misinterpreted by prosecutors.
Aside from the one-year jail term, the judges also gave Sarkozy a two-year suspended sentence. Sarkozy’s lawyer, Thierry Herzog, and the court official charged in the case received the same sentences as the former president.
Defendants aren’t normally incarcerated if the non-suspended portion of their sentence isn’t longer than two years. They typically have to wear electronic bracelets and obey a curfew instead. Additionally, appealing a first-instance sentence suspends its execution.
After the ruling, several Twitter users re-posted a tweet by Sarkozy five years ago, where he signaled his opposition to arrangements such as wearing electronic bracelets for anyone convicted to more than six months in jail.
In her judgment, Mée said on Monday that “the fraternal bond” Herzog “forged with Nicolas Sarkozy obscured his professional judgement as a lawyer.”
The offenses “seriously damaged public confidence by instilling the idea that proceedings at the Cour of Cassation” — France’s top court — “can be subjected to hidden arrangements,” Mée said. “Such behavior seriously harms the legitimate confidence every citizen is entitled to have in the justice system.”