Any hopes that Nicolas Sarkozy had of returning to the Elysee palace in Paris as president of France may have been shelved this week as the former Conservative leader now involuntarily adds the title of ‘convicted’ to his curriculum vitae.
On Monday, the 66-year old was found guilty of corruption and influence-peddling by a Parisian magistrate and sentenced to a three-year jail term. There is little chance of him packing his valise and heading straight to jail. Two of those years of imprisonment have been suspended.
The third, his lawyers will argue, should be served at home, wearing an electronic monitoring bracelet. As ignominious as that prospect might be — worst fates have befallen fallen French leaders in centuries past.
In this century, another former French president, Jacques Chirac, received a two-year suspended sentence for corruption while previously Mayor of Paris.
Sarkozy’s defence lawyer Jacqueline Laffont told reporters that the former president would appeal the decision and contest the conviction, adding the court decision was “totally out of step with the reality” of the case.
The reality is that it’s a stunning fall from grace for the suave Sarkozy — a one-term president between 2007 and 2012 who carefully crafted an image one the world stage as France reeled from the financial crash of 2010 and the European Union wrestled with a debt crisis that hit hardest at the economics of Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain.
Sarkozy was accused of offering to boost a senior magistrate’s chance of obtaining a promotion in Monaco back in 2014 in return for leaked information about a judicial inquiry against him. 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.
In 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.
But Sarkozy’s legal woes don’t end here. He faces 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 (Dh190 million), almost twice the maximum authorised, to finance the campaign.
There are also legal woes coming from his dealings with Gaddafi, and has been handed a preliminary notice of charges for passive corruption, illegal campaign financing, concealment of stolen assets from Libya and criminal association. He has denied wrongdoing.
His wife, the former supermodel and singer Carla Bruni, is standing by her man. “What a senseless witch-hunt, my love Nicolas Sarkozy,” she posted on Instagram next to a photo of the couple embracing.
With French elections due in 15 months’ time, Sarkozy has been considering another run for the Elysee Palace. That’s now done, leaving conservatives looking for someone capable of taking on President Emmanuel Macron — with Marine LePen also campaigning for votes on the right.
‘Sarko’, as he is colloquially known to friends and opponents., was born to immigrant Hungarian and Greek parents and qualified as a lawyer in 1981. Like most of the political elite in France, Sarkozy attended the Institut d’Études Politiques in Paris between 1979 and 1981.
Two years later he was elected mayor of Neuilly sur Seine — an affluent municipality in the northwest of Paris. He still remains the youngest-ever person to be elected a municipal mayor and served in the role until 2002.
French political practice allows individuals to serve in more than one role, and Sarkozy made his mark in the national scene as a budget minister and spokesman for then Prime Minister Edouard Balladur.
It was through his work with Balladur that Sarko showed his political acumen and learnt the price that has to be paid by losing. Balladur had been put forward by politicians on the right, including Chirac, to serve as PM under Socialist president Francois Mitterrand, laying the groundwork for Chirac to run for the Elysee in 1995.
Sarkozy, however, orchestrated Balladur to run for president himself. Sarkozy was shunned by Chirac for the ill-fated move, and Balladur out to Chirac. Small wonder then that Sarkozy was shut out of the subsequent centre-right government between 1995 and 97.
In 2002, after Chirac’s reelection as president, a new centre-right government was formed, and Sarkozy returned to office as interior minister, holding the post for two years. In March 2004, he became Finance Minister but left eight months later to become leader of the centre-right Union for a Popular Movement (UMP).
It was a move that would allow greater flexibility at a time when French voters were debating — and ultimately rejected — the EU’s reformed constitution.
He returned again as Interior Minister and quickly faced a stern challenge when three weeks of rioting in the Parisian suburbs shook French society. Sako’s reactions? Call them “scum” and take a hard-line — one that did not go unnoticed or unappreciated by French voters when he ran for the Elysee in 2007.
He finished first in the initial round of voting on April 22, and two weeks’ later, defeated Social candidate Segolene Royal by winning 53 per cent of the vote on promises of radical economic reform, liberalising the French labour market and forging closer ties with Washington.
Political acumen is one thing. With this week’s convictions to contend with and two other trials in the near future, it remains to be seen indeed if Sarkozy possesses the legal acumen to keep any future incarceration to the confines of his home. On that, the jury is still out.
With inputs from agencies