Nicolas Sarkozy, the former French president, will make history on Monday when he appears in court accused of corruption and influence peddling.
The case is the first of several inquiries against the right-wing politician which led France between 2007 and 2012 to appear before the judges after years of attempts to have the charges dropped or overturned.
In a case known as the “eavesdropping affair”, the prosecution alleges that Sarkozy and his lawyer, Thierry Herzog, tried to bribe a senior magistrate, Gilbert Azibert, to give him secret information from an investigation distinct against the former French ruler. In return, Sarkozy is accused of having offered to help Azibert find a cushy job on the French Riviera.
Sarkozy has been targeted in a series of forensic investigations – from allegations of illicit campaign finance from the late Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi to receiving alleged bribes from arms sales in Pakistan.
French detectives began monitoring Sarkozy’s communications in September 2013 as part of an investigation into allegations that he received an undeclared and illegal donation of € 50 million from Gaddafi to fund his successful presidential campaign of 2007.
What they heard from the taped conversations, however, pointed investigators in an entirely new and unexpected direction. They revealed that the former president and Herzog communicated “secretly” using cell phones registered under false names. Sarkozy’s phone has been attributed to a Paul Bismuth.
Additional wiretaps on those phones picked up conversations suggesting that Sarkozy had been in contact with Azibert, then a member of the Court of Cassation – France’s highest court – via Herzog to request confidential information on a separate investigation to find out if Sarkozy had received donations ill heiress of L’Oreal, Liliane Bettencourt.
Investigators seized Sarkozy’s diaries as part of the Bettencourt investigation, and the former president would have wanted Azibert to find out what they were planning to do with it. In return, he would have promised to put a word to appoint Azibert to a sinecure in Monaco.
The Bettencourt case was eventually dropped, but by then the investigation into corruption and influence peddling had been opened.
Sarkozy has always vigorously denied any wrongdoing in all past and present investigations. He claimed that Bismuth’s accusations were “an insult to my intelligence”.
Herzog also argued that wiretapping and recording their phones violated customer privacy rules, but his repeated attempts to have the evidence dismissed or the case dismissed failed.
The three accused, Sarkozy, Herzog and Azibert, are accused of “corruption” and “influence peddling”. Herzog and Azibert are also accused of “violation of professional secrets”. They all face up to 10 years in prison and heavy fines if convicted.
In its requisition, the National Financial Prosecutor’s Office (PNF) accused Sarkozy of behaving as a “seasoned delinquent” and accused his lawyers of “paralyzing” the investigation by numerous appeals.
Sarkozy’s supporters, including the former Minister of Justice Rachida Dati, have, in turn, accused the PNF, created under his successor, the socialist François Hollande, of rendering “political justice”.
However, Fabrice Arfi, editor of the news site Mediapart, which has carried out several in-depth investigations into allegations of political corruption, told the Observer Sarkozy’s attempts to distract from himself and point the finger at the legal and political system were “pure populism”.
“This is a historic trial for justice in France because it is the first time that a president will appear before a court accused of corruption. This is absolutely crucial and probably the biggest test that French anti-corruption judges have faced, ”Arfi said.
“Sarkozy is on trial, but instead of responding to the accusations, what he tried to do is point the finger at French justice and bring it to justice. Here we have a former president who behaves like Berlusconi and Trump.
Sarkozy is expected to appear in court next year in another case, the “Bygmalion affair”, in which he is accused of overspending for his 2012 re-election. No date has been given. set for court hearings in other inquiries linked to Sarkozy.