Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy, wearing a protective face mask, leaves after the verdict in his trial on charges of corruption and influence peddling, at the Paris courthous in Fran on March 1 2021. Picture: REUTERS/GONZALO FUENTES
Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy, wearing a protective face mask, leaves after the verdict in his trial on charges of corruption and influence peddling, at the Paris courthous in Fran on March 1 2021. Picture: REUTERS/GONZALO FUENTES

Next year’s presidential election in France will probably come down — as the last one did — to a contest between President Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen, leader of Rassemblement National. This confrontation between Macron’s liberal centrism and the far-right nationalism of Le Pen is the current default setting of French politics. The traditional struggle between French socialists and conservatives for occupancy of the Elysée has, for now, been consigned to the past.

Perhaps at least part of the explanation for that can be found in the proceedings of France’s criminal justice system. Nicolas Sarkozy will appeal against Monday’s humiliating verdict by a Paris court, which found him guilty of corruption and influence peddling. But if the judgment — and an unprecedented prison sentence — is upheld, the former conservative president will join the centre-right’s presidential candidate of 2017, François Fillon, in a lengthening roll of dishonour. Three years ago Fillon was leading in the presidential polls until it was revealed that about €1m from the public purse had been illegally paid to his wife and members of his family. The fortunes of his party have yet to fully recover.

On the Left, Socialist former budget minister Jérôme Cahuzac was found guilty of tax fraud in 2016 and given a three-year sentence. Cahuzac had been entrusted by president François Hollande with the launch of a high-profile crackdown on tax evasion, and the manner of his fall was a hammer blow for his party. The implosion of the two main forces on the centre-right and centre-left paved the way for Macron’s astonishingly rapid rise. As the fresh-faced leader of a new party in 2017, he positioned himself in the right place at the right time.

A cleanup of the French political establishment was overdue. As this week’s extraordinary court drama indicated, postwar deference towards the sharp practice of the country’s elite, past and present, has long gone. Sarkozy was found guilty of attempting to bribe a magistrate. A further trial, beginning later in March, will rule on alleged overspending during his 2012 reelection campaign. Whatever the result of his appeal, it seems certain the former president’s political career is over. /London, March 2

The Guardian

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