France's Nicolas Sarkozy convicted of corruption, likely to escape jail time
Former president denies wrongdoing, says he is victim of witch hunt
France's former president Nicolas Sarkozy was found guilty of corruption on Monday and sentenced to three years in prison, a stunning fall from grace for a man who led his country and bestrode the world stage for five years.
Financial prosecutors convinced a Paris court that after Sarkozy left office he tried to bribe a judge and influence-peddle in exchange for confidential information relating to an investigation into his 2007 campaign finances.
However, the 66-year-old Sarkozy, who denied all wrongdoing, may not spend any time in prison. Two years of his sentence were suspended, and the presiding judge said she would accept allowing him to be tagged with an electronic bracelet outside of prison for the remaining year.
“He took advantage of his status and the relationships he had made,” presiding judge Christine Mee told the court.
Sarkozy, who served as president from 2007 to 2012, is the second head of state in modern-day France to be convicted of corruption.
Retired from politics but still influential among conservatives, Sarkozy has 10 days to appeal the ruling. He left the court without speaking.
Prosecutors said Sarkozy had offered to secure a plum job in Monaco for a judge, Gilbert Azibert, in return for inside information about an inquiry into allegations that he had accepted illegal payments from L'Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt for his 2007 presidential campaign.
Sarkozy said he was the victim of a witch-hunt by financial prosecutors who had used excessive means to snoop on his affairs.
ANOTHER TRIAL LOOMS
Sarkozy burst onto the world stage as a reformer full of ideas who would break with France’s stagnant past on the domestic front and restore the birthplace of human rights to a place of prominence in international affairs.
Sarkozy earned himself the moniker of the Gallic Thatcher, undertaking market-driven reforms such as raising the retirement age in France, loosening the 35-hour work week and tweaking the tax system to encourage overtime.
Outside France, he brokered a ceasefire to the 2008 Russia-Georgia war, championed the 2011 military intervention in Libya and hosted high-profile G8 and G20 summits.
The only other president of the Fifth Republic to be convicted by a court was Sarkozy's predecessor, the late Jacques Chirac, who was found guilty of corruption in 2011.
Investigators had been wiretapping conversations between Sarkozy and his lawyer Thierry Herzog from 2013 as they delved into allegations of Libyan financing of Sarkozy's 2007 campaign.
As they did, they learnt that Sarkozy and his lawyer were communicating using mobile phones registered under false names. Sarkozy's phone was registered to a Paul Bismuth.
Herzog and Azibert, who were on trial alongside Sarkozy, were also found guilty of corruption and influence-peddling.
“Such behaviour can only seriously undermine the legitimate trust that the public must have in the justice system,” Mee said.
Another judge will decide whether to permit Sarkozy to wear a bracelet instead of being imprisoned.
Sarkozy and his centre-right party Les Republicains have for years said the investigations against the former president are politically motivated.
Later this month, Sarkozy is due in court on accusations of violating campaign financing rules during his failed 2012 re-election bid.
Prosecutors are still investigating claims that Libya's former leader Muammar Gaddafi provided Sarkozy’s 2007 campaign with millions of euros shipped to Paris in suitcases — allegations that Sarkozy denies.
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