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Ex-French leader Sarkozy found guilty of corruption, sentenced to year in prison

Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy waves as he walks with a woman past a man in uniform
Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy waves as he arrives at a Paris courtroom in December.
(Michel Euler / Associated Press)

A Paris court on Monday found France’s former President Nicolas Sarkozy guilty of corruption and influence-peddling and sentenced him to a year in prison and a two-year suspended sentence.

The 66-year-old politician, who was president from 2007-12, was convicted for having tried to illegally obtain information from a senior magistrate in 2014 about a legal action in which he was involved.

The court said Sarkozy would be entitled to request to be detained at home with an electronic bracelet.

This is the first time in France’s modern history that a former president has been convicted and sentenced to prison for corruption.

Sarkozy’s co-defendants — his lawyer and longtime friend Thierry Herzog, 65, and now-retired magistrate Gilbert Azibert, 74 — were also found guilty and given the same sentence as the former president.

The court found that Sarkozy and his co-defendants sealed a “pact of corruption,” based on “consistent and serious evidence.” It said the facts were “particularly serious” given that they were committed by a former president who used his status to help a magistrate who had served his personal interest.

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PARIS — Former President Nicolas Sarkozy lashed out at French magistrates Wednesday for pursuing “grotesque” corruption charges against him, accusing the officials who put him under investigation of being politically biased and seeking to humiliate and destroy him.

In addition, as a lawyer by training, Sarkozy was “perfectly informed” about committing an illegal action, the court said.

Sarkozy had firmly denied all the allegations against him during the 10-day trial, which took place at the end of last year.

The trial focused on phone conversations that took place in February 2014.

At the time, investigative judges had launched an inquiry into the financing of the 2007 presidential campaign. During the investigation, they incidentally discovered that Sarkozy and Herzog were communicating via secret mobile phones registered to the alias Paul Bismuth.

The French are among the most reluctant people in the world to get a COVID-19 shot because of distrust of the government and past health scandals.

Conversations wiretapped on these phones led prosecutors to suspect Sarkozy and Herzog of promising Azibert a job in Monaco in exchange for leaking information about another legal case, known by the name of France’s richest woman, L’Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt.

In one of these phone calls with Herzog, Sarkozy said of Azibert : “I’ll make him move up. ... I’ll help him.”

In another, Herzog reminded Sarkozy to “say a word” for Azibert during a trip to Monaco.

Legal proceedings against Sarkozy have been dropped in the Bettencourt case. Azibert never got the Monaco job.

Liliane Bettencourt, the L’Oreal cosmetics heiress and the world’s richest woman, has died at her home in a chic Parisian suburb.

Prosecutors have concluded, however, that the “clearly stated promise” constitutes in itself a corruption offense under French law, even if the promise wasn’t fulfilled.

Sarkozy vigorously denies any malicious intention. He told the court that his political life was all about “giving [people] a little help. That’s all it is — a little help.”

“I was 100 billion miles away from thinking we were doing something we did not have the right to do,” he said.

Sarkozy said he did not receive confidential information from Azibert.

Prosecutors believe that Sarkozy was at some point informed the secret phones were being wiretapped and that it is the reason why he did not ultimately help Azibert get the job.

The confidentiality of communications between a lawyer and his client was a major point of contention in the trial.

“You have in front of you a man of whom more that 3,700 private conversations have been wiretapped. ... What did I do to deserve that?” Sarkozy said.

Sarkozy’s defense lawyer, Jacqueline Laffont, argued that the entire case was based on “small talk” between a lawyer and his client. “You don’t have the beginning of a piece of evidence, not the slightest witness account, the slightest declaration,” she told the court.

The court concluded that the use of wiretapped conversations was legal as long as they helped show evidence of corruption-related offenses.

France is one of several European countries that have begun imposing curfews to try to stem the coronavirus spread, but it comes at a social cost.

Sarkozy withdrew from active politics after failing to be chosen as his conservative party’s presidential candidate for France’s 2017 election, which was won by Emmanuel Macron.

Sarkozy remains very popular amid right-wing voters and plays a major role behind the scenes, including through maintaining a relationship with Macron, whom he is said to advise on certain topics. His memoirs published this summer, “The Time of Storms,” was a bestseller for weeks.

He will face another trial later this month along with 13 other people on charges of illegally financing his 2012 presidential campaign.

His conservative party is suspected of having spent about $51 million, almost twice the maximum authorized, to finance the campaign, which ended in victory for his Socialist rival, Francois Hollande.

In another investigation opened in 2013, Sarkozy is accused of having accepted millions from Libyan dictator Moammar Kadafi to illegally finance his 2007 campaign.

He was slapped with preliminary charges of passive corruption, illegal campaign financing, concealment of stolen assets from Libya and criminal association. He has denied wrongdoing.


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