Jerome Lavrilleux, center, a former cabinet director for the French President Nicolas Sarkozy, arrives at the courtroom Thursday, May 20, 2021 in Paris. Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy goes on trial on Thursday on charges that his unsuccessful 2012 reelection bid was illegally financed, a scandal that has thrown his conservative party into turmoil. (AP Photo/Michel Euler)
Nicolas Sarkozy, President of France from 2007 to 2012, was sentenced on March 1st , 2021 with influence-peddling and violation of professional secrecy[i]. This controversy arose when it was leaked that he had offered a magistrate a higher-paid position in exchange for confidential information on the on-going investigation into his 2007 presidential campaign[ii]. His resulting punishment is a three year prison sentence with two of those years being suspended by the court and the remaining year to be served under house arrest[iii]. It is important to note that Sarkozy is currently still appealing the case and will remain free for the duration of the most likely lengthy appeal process. However, this trial still constitutes a landmark case in France as this is the first time since the post-WW2 trial of Marshal Pétain that a president faces an actual prison sentence[iv]. Previously, former president Jacques Chirac received a two-year sentence for embezzling public funds during his times as the mayor of Paris; yet, both years of his sentence were suspended and he did not spend any time in prison or under house arrest[v].
This trial is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of former President Sarkozy’s host of legal troubles. In June, 2021, he will be reappearing in court for a separate case involving his 2012 campaign, which he lost to François Hollande[vi]. During his campaign, Sarkozy and 14 of his associates are accused of exceeding France’s legal limit on campaign finances through a system of falsified expenditures using Bygmalion, a communication agency linked to Sarkozy’s political party, the UPM. Nicolas Sarkozy is facing an additional one-year prison sentence and a fine of 3,750 euros if convicted.
Furthermore, Sarkozy is still under investigation for more allegations revolving around his 2007 presidential campaign. Sarkozy is accused of receiving illegal campaign funds from Muhammad Gaddafi of allegedly 50 million euros[vii]. This is not only illegal due to France’s law on not accepting campaign finances from foreign states but the monetary amount far exceeds the national legal limit. Official inquiries into the matter were opened in 2013 after many reports were published providing official documents and testimonies substantiating claims that Sarkozy had willingly received illegal funding from Gaddafi[viii]. In March of 2018, Sarkozy was taken into questioning by French authorities and later charged[ix]. These charges include: membership in a criminal conspiracy, corruption, illegal campaign financing and benefiting from embezzled public funds[x]. There have been at least five arrests including Nicolas Sarkozy and his former chief of staff in connection with this scandal[xi]. The trial associated with this investigation is still pending upon the completion of a full investigation.
The final outcomes of these trials and investigations are
still unknown. Investigations could fall through and any sentences will likely
be appealed by Sarkozy. What is certain is that these cases demonstrate that French
presidents can no longer act with seemingly complete impunity. Yet, the lack of
severity in regards to sentencing indicates that former presidents are still given
special privilege in the eyes of the French legal system.
[i] “France’s Nicolas Sarkozy: ‘Bling’ and Legal Woes,” BBC News (BBC, March 1, 2021), https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-11576712.
[iv] “Sarkozy’s Conviction Shows, at Last, French Presidents May No Longer Be above the Law | Philippe Marlière,” The Guardian (Guardian News and Media, March 2, 2021), https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/mar/02/sarkozys-conviction-french-presidents-no-longer-above-law-corruption-veridict.
[vi] FRANCE 24, “Affaire Bygmalion: Le Procès De Nicolas Sarkozy Renvoyé Du 20 Mai Au 22 Juin,” France 24 (France 24, March 17, 2021), https://www.france24.com/fr/france/20210317-affaire-bygmalion-le-proc%C3%A8s-de-nicolas-sarkozy-renvoy%C3%A9-du-20-mai-au-22-juin.
[vii] “Affaire Sarkozy-Kadhafi : Chronique D’un Potentiel Scandale D’État – Jeune Afrique,” JeuneAfrique.com, December 3, 2020, https://www.jeuneafrique.com/1061646/politique/affaire-sarkozy-kadhafi-chronique-dun-potentiel-scandale-detat/.
[x] “France’s Nicolas Sarkozy”
[xi] “Affaire Sarkozy-Kadhafi”