France’s former president Nicolas Sarkozy went on trial Monday on charges of corruption, becoming the first French ex-head of state in the dock and risking a humiliating end to a career tainted by legal woes.
Dressed in a suit and wearing a face mask, Sarkozy waved to his lawyers as he entered the Paris courtroom but made no statement to the throng of journalists, an AFP correspondent said.
Presiding judges quickly suspended the trial until Thursday to allow for a medical exam of a co-defendant, 73-year-old judge Gilbert Azibert, whose lawyers said he was not present because of health reasons.
Prosecutors say Sarkozy promised Azibert a plush job in Monaco in exchange for inside information on a separate inquiry into claims he had accepted illicit payments from L’Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt during his 2007 presidential campaign.
Only one other president, Sarkozy’s political mentor Jacques Chirac, has faced trial after leaving office — but because of ill health, Chirac never appeared in court for his conviction in a fake-jobs scandal.
Sarkozy has denied the accusations and fought furiously to have the case thrown out, calling it “a scandal that will go down in history.”
“I am not a crook,” the 65-year-old, whose combative style has made him one of France’s most popular politicians, told BFM TV this month.
Part of the evidence comes from wiretaps of phone conversations between Sarkozy and his longtime lawyer Thierry Herzog, authorised as part of a third probe into suspected Libyan financing of Sarkozy’s 2007 campaign.
That inquiry is still going on, though Sarkozy caught a break this month when his main accuser retracted a central claim of having delivered millions of euros in cash from Libyan dictator Moamer Kadhafi.
Charged with bribery and influence peddling, Sarkozy risks a prison sentence of up to 10 years and a fine of one million euros ($1.2 million).
Herzog faces the same charges and a further allegation of violating professional secrecy. The trial is expected to last three weeks.
– Like a ‘seasoned offender’ –
Investigators discovered that Sarkozy used an alias — Paul Bismuth — to buy a phone for secret talks with his lawyer.
The pair discussed reaching out to Azibert, a top judge who prosecutors say was tasked with getting information trying to sway the Bettencourt inquiry in Sarkozy’s favour.
In exchange, Sarkozy would use his contacts to try to secure a cushy Monaco post for Azibert.
“I’ll make him move up,” Sarkozy told Herzog, according to prosecutors, who compared his actions to those of a “seasoned offender”.
But later, Sarkozy appeared to back away from the Monaco plan — a sign, according to prosecutors, that the two men had been tipped off about the wiretaps.
“All this is nothing more than sentence fragments taken out of context,” Herzog’s lawyer Paul-Albert Iweins told France Info radio on Monday, calling them “conversations between very old friends”.
– Still in limelight –
Sarkozy, a lawyer by training, says the judiciary have been waging a vendetta because he attempted to limit judges’ powers and accused many of being too soft on delinquents.
He is due back in court in March 2021 along with 13 other people over claims of campaign finance violations during his unsuccessful 2012 re-election bid.
Prosecutors accuse Sarkozy’s team of using a fake-invoices scheme orchestrated by the public relations firm Bygmalion to spend nearly 43 million euros on the lavish run — nearly twice the legal limit.
His long-running legal travails helped sink his comeback bid for the 2017 presidential vote, but Sarkozy has surfed on a wave of popularity since announcing his retirement from politics in 2018, pressing the flesh with enthusiastic crowds at public appearances.
Lines of fans queued over the summer to have him sign his latest memoir “The Time of Storms”, which topped best-seller lists for weeks.