Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy on June 19 2019. Picture: AFP/LIONEL BONAVENTURE
Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy on June 19 2019. Picture: AFP/LIONEL BONAVENTURE

Paris — France’s former president Nicolas Sarkozy is to go on trial facing charges of corruption and influence-peddling after losing his final bid to avert appearing in the dock, sources close to the case said Wednesday.

The Court of Cassation, which rules on questions of law, said on Tuesday that a trial was justified for Sarkozy, as well as his lawyer Thierry Herzog and former judge Gilbert Azibert.

The ruling was Sarkozy’s last hope of preventing the trial coming to court but the French judicial authorities have now approved sending the case to a criminal tribunal, according to a source close to the case.

The trial will begin in the next few months in Paris, although a date has yet to be set, added the source, who asked not to be named.

Sarkozy is not the first former French president to be prosecuted; his predecessor Jacques Chirac was given a two-year suspended sentence in 2011 for embezzlement and misuse of public funds during his time as mayor of Paris.

However, it is the first time in the history of modern France that a former leader will face explicit corruption charges in court.

‘Up to the court’

The influence-peddling case centres on conversations between Herzog and Azibert that were tapped by investigators looking into claims that Sarkozy accepted illicit payments from the L’Oréal heiress Liliane Bettencourt for his 2007 presidential campaign.

They suspect Sarkozy and his lawyer were seeking information on developments in the case, with Sarkozy offering Azibert a plum job in Monaco in exchange.

The inquiry also revealed that Sarkozy and Herzog often communicated via mobile phones obtained under false identities — with Sarkozy using the name Paul Bismuth.

Sarkozy was cleared over the Bettencourt allegations in 2013, and has argued he should not face trial because Azibert never got the Monaco job. But investigators believe the deal fell through because Sarkozy and his lawyer learned their phones were being tapped.

Sarkozy’s defence lawyers, basing their arguments on a European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruling, have argued that such wiretapped transcriptions can be used only against lawyers, not their clients.

“It will be up to the court now to say if a French institution can free itself of a decision by the ECHR,” Sarkozy’s lawyer Jacqueline Laffont told AFP.

Mired in troubles 

Sarkozy, who lost the presidency in 2012 elections to his socialist rival François Hollande after serving just one term, has seen his post-Élysée life over the past years disturbed by a litany of legal problems.

In 2014, he became the first former French president to be taken into police custody during a preliminary stage of the inquiry. In May, a top court rejected an appeal to avoid another trial, involving charges of illicit financing for the 2012 campaign.

Prosecutors claim Sarkozy spent nearly €43m on his lavish re-election bid — almost double the legal limit of €22.5m — using fake invoices. He has denounced the charges, saying he was unaware of the fraud by executives at the PR firm Bygmalion, who are among 13 people also likely to face trial.

Sarkozy has also been charged over accusations he accepted millions of euros from the late Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi towards his first presidential campaign in 2007.

A Franco-Lebanese businessman, Ziad Takieddine, claims he delivered three suitcases containing €5m in 2006 and 2007 to Sarkozy, who was interior minister at the time, and his chief of staff.

Meanwhile, Sarkozy’s right-wing Republicans party has also been plagued by problems, coming a lacklustre fourth in EU elections. Some party members still see Sarkozy as their political saviour, but he has ruled out a comeback.

Sarkozy began his presidency in 2007 in a blaze of energy and publicity but found his mandate shadowed by the 2008 financial crisis. By the end of his term, he had some of the lowest popularity ratings of any previous post-war French leader.

After his humiliating 2012 defeat, Sarkozy famously promised that “you won’t hear about me anymore”, a prophecy that has turned out to be anything but true.