Paris, France , March 1 – Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy was found guilty of corruption on Monday and handed a three-year prison sentence after a court in Paris convicted him for trying to illegally influence a judge during his time in office.
The sentence includes two years suspended, which means it is unlikely Sarkozy will physically go to prison.
He is almost certain to appeal and remains free, with no arrest warrant issued.
The verdict is the latest twist in the tumultuous political career of the 66-year-old who ruled France from 2007 to 2012 and remains a favourite for many on the right.
The conviction is likely to undermine any attempted comeback to frontline politics, an ambition he has denied, but which has been promoted by many supporters ahead of 2022 presidential elections.
Only one other French president, Sarkozy’s political mentor Jacques Chirac, was put on trial after leaving office, but he was excused from having to attend his 2011 corruption trial because of ill health.
Chirac received a two-year suspended sentence over the creation of ghost jobs at the Paris city hall to fund his party when he was mayor.
The verdict on Monday related to a case of influence peddling and corruption, one of at least four separate investigations into the former leader, who married former supermodel and singer Carla Bruni while in office.
– ‘Not the slightest act’ –
Sarkozy was accused of offering to help a judge obtain a senior job in Monaco in exchange for putting pressure on an inquiry into his campaign finances.
The former president told the court during the trial he had “never committed the slightest act of corruption”.
Prosecutors called for him to be jailed for four years and serve a minimum of two, and asked for the same punishment for his co-defendants — lawyer Thierry Herzog and the judge Gilbert Azibert.
“The events would not have occurred if a former president, as well as a lawyer, had kept in mind the magnitude, the responsibility, and the duties of his office,” prosecutor Jean-Luc Blachon told the court as the trial wound up in December.
The graft and influence-peddling charges — among several legal cases against him — carry a maximum sentence of 10 years and a fine of one million euros ($1.2 million).
– ‘With certainty’ –
Prosecutors say Sarkozy and Herzog tried to bribe judge Azibert over an inquiry into claims the former leader had received illicit payments from L’Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt during his successful 2007 presidential campaign.
The state’s case is based on wiretaps of conversations between Herzog and Sarkozy, with prosecutors accusing him of “using secret telephone lines” to cover up his attempt to infiltrate the court.
Prosecutor Celine Guillet said it had been established “with certainty” that judge Azibert transmitted confidential information about the Bettencourt case to his friend Herzog.
One conversation “overwhelmingly” showed that Sarkozy had promised to intervene to get Azibert a post in Monaco, she said.
Sarkozy’s lawyer Jacqueline Laffont lashed out at the flaws and “emptiness” of the prosecutor’s accusations, with the defence also claiming that the tapped conversations had been just “chats between friends”.
Azibert, who was a senior adviser at France’s highest appeals court at the time, never got the job in Monaco.
Sarkozy’s lawyers argued this pointed to the absence of corruption, but prosecutors said French law makes no distinction between a successful corruption attempt and a failed one.
– More to come –
Sarkozy was eventually cleared of any wrongdoing in the Bettencourt affair but still faces a raft of other legal woes.
On March 17 he is scheduled to face a second trial over accusations of fraudulently overspending in his failed 2012 reelection bid.
He has also been charged over allegations he received millions of euros from Libyan dictator Moamer Kadhafi for his 2007 election campaign.
And in January, prosecutors opened another probe into alleged influence-peddling by Sarkozy over his advisory activities in Russia.
Sarkozy’s long-running legal travails helped sink his comeback bid for the 2017 presidential vote, but he has surfed on a wave of popularity since announcing his retirement from politics in 2018.
Lines of fans queued over last summer to have him sign his latest memoir, “The Time of Storms”, which topped best-seller lists for weeks.