French former president Nicolas Sarkozy back in dock as graft trial opens

Nicolas Sarkozy, who was France's president from 2007 until 2012, has been dogged by a succession of legal cases since leaving office.
Nicolas Sarkozy, who was France's president from 2007 until 2012, has been dogged by a succession of legal cases since leaving office. AFP/File

French former president Nicolas Sarkozy goes on trial Monday, accused of attempting to bribe a judge.


Sarkozy is the first modern French head of state to face corruption charges.

Prosecutors say the then French president promised the judge a plush job in Monaco in exchange for inside information on an inquiry into claims that Sarkozy had accepted illicit payments from L'Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt to help finance his 2007 presidential campaign.

Their case rests in large part on wiretaps of phone conversations between Sarkozy and his longtime lawyer Thierry Herzog, which judges authorised as part of a separate investigation into suspected Libyan financing of Sarkozy's 2007 campaign.

That inquiry is still underway.

Sarkozy and Herzog have condemned the tapping of their phones as a breach of client-attorney privilege, but in 2016 a top court upheld the use of the conversations recorded as evidence.

Charged with bribery and influence peddling, Sarkozy risks a prison sentence of up to 10 years and a maximum fine of one million euros.

Herzog, a leading member of the Paris bar, faces the same charges as well as that of violating professional secrecy. The trial is expected to last three weeks.

Tangled web of intrigue

 Investigators discovered that Sarkozy used an alias -- Paul Bismuth -- to buy a private phone to enable him to speak secretly with his lawyer.

On around a dozen occasions, the pair discussed contacting a top French judge, Gilbert Azibert, a general counsel at the Cour de Cassation, France's top appeals court for criminal and civil cases.

Prosecutors claim Azibert, who is also on trial, was tasked with obtaining information from the court lawyer in charge of the Bettencourt inquiry, and with inducing him to seek a verdict in Sarkozy's favour.

In exchange, Sarkozy allegedly promised to use his extensive contacts to give "a boost" to Azibert's efforts to secure the cushy Monaco post.

"I'll make him move up," Sarkozy told Herzog, according to the indictment by prosecutors, who compared his actions to those of a "seasoned offender".

Later, Sarkozy appeared to back away from approaching the Monaco authorities on Azibert's behalf -- a sign, according to prosecutors, that the two men had been tipped off about the wiretaps.

"Mr Azibert never got any post in Monaco," Sarkozy has pointed out -- though under French law, making an offer or promise can constitute corruption.

Other legal difficulties

Sarkozy, a lawyer by training, claims the French judiciary have been waging a vendetta against him as payback for his attempts to limit judges' powers and telling them they were 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.

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