On the last day of September, the Paris Correctional Court made a decision that will go down in French political history. Former president of the republic, Nicolas Sarkozy, was found guilty of overspending on his 2012 election campaign for re-election. The judges sentenced him to a year of imprisonment outside prison, but with the obligation to wear an electronic bracelet.
The ex-president’s lawyers insisted on canceling the trial, recalling that their client fully reimbursed the Union in Support of the Popular Movement (UMP) the entire amount of the fine paid by this party for over-funding the elections. Disregarding the demand for protection, the court, however, imposed even harsher penalties than expected for Sarkozy and 13 organizers of his election campaign.
Many people in France are asking why the punishment was so harsh, because there have been cases of exceeding the costs of the election marathon before. In legal circles, they explain that the verdict, passed on the eve of the new presidential campaign (they will be held in April 2022), is intended to serve as a “warning to all candidates.”
According to experts, a few years ago the problem would have been easily settled by the Constitutional Council, which is supposed to oversee the observance of the laws of the republic. But times have changed, and the organizers of election campaigns, lawyers warn, will find it difficult to avoid punishment for violating the rules of their financing.
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In response to Sarkozy’s testimony that he was not aware of the excess costs, the court noted that “the offenses were committed in the interests of the campaign of the president of the republic, who was also a candidate for the extension of his own mandate.” The court admitted that all the sums, which were almost € 20 million higher than the spending ceiling, were used for the election campaign.
The representatives of justice explain the severity of the verdict by the fact that the misdemeanors committed – both in scale and in the light of the official position of the defendants – were unprecedented. As prosecutor Nicolas Bayetto said, the trust that connects a citizen with a presidential candidate is extremely important. Political freedom of candidates, argued the prosecutor, is absolute, but it is limited financially. Candidates cannot spend as much as they want. The existing rules of the game are not so numerous, but strict. In this case, the chain of trust was broken, and the victims were the voters.
Not everyone, however, agrees with this explanation of the verdict. According to the famous lawyer, member of the Paris Bar Association Frederic Belo, in reality, the only purpose of the process was to prevent Sarkozy from running again for the presidency. The expert sees in this outcome of the process the omnipotence of judges, which is dangerous for democracy.
He pointed out that the prosecutor’s office based the accusations on what, in their opinion, “the president should have known or could not have been unaware.” But can this be considered proof if Sarkozy did not sign the documents and did not participate in drawing up any double bills?
This is the second conviction of the former president in a year. In March, a Paris court found him guilty of “corruption and trading in influence.” Then he was sentenced to three years in prison (two of them conditionally and one in prison). Sarkozy’s lawyer Thierry Erzog and former judge of the Constitutional Court Gilbert Azibert, who were also involved in the “wiretapping” case, were found guilty of disclosing professional secrets.
According to the prosecution, Sarkozy promised Azibert assistance in obtaining a post in the Principality of Monaco in exchange for confidential information on the investigation of the illegal financing of his election campaign in 2007 by the French perfume house L’Oreal (“L’Oréal”). The investigation referred to the tapes of the intercepted telephone conversations. Calling the wiretapping with his client “a violation of the secrecy of the investigation,” Sarkozy’s lawyers demanded in vain that the charges be dropped. The court was not impressed by the reference to the decisions of the Council of Europe prohibiting such interceptions of lawyers’ negotiations.
The case related to allegations of illegal use of funds from Libyan funds to finance the 2007 campaign is still pending. The ex-president is under investigation in this case.
To the surprise of sociologists, the prosecution of Sarkozy did not affect his popularity in any way. Despite the judges’ verdict, he devoted the weekend to signing autographs to numerous supporters on the occasion of the publication of the book “Walks” (Promenades, 2021), in which he spoke about his passions in the world of culture and literature.
The popularity rating of the 66-year-old politician, especially among the right-wing electorate, remains high. The autograph signing at the Librairie Lamartine bookstore in the elite 16th arrondissement of Paris, where his home is located, was more like a campaign meeting. “Nicolas!” – enthusiastically chanted those who had been waiting for it in the morning to express their support for the politician. Sarkozy, who had already made a decision to appeal the verdict, was in a militant mood. “I do not strive for a fight with anyone, but I want justice,” he stressed.
The Elysee Palace does not comment on the outcome of the next trial over Sarkozy. The former French leader and the current president maintain a fairly close relationship. Sarkozy avoids criticism of Macron in domestic affairs and expresses support for his foreign policy. Following Macron, he condemned the behavior of the United States, which intercepted the contract for the construction of submarines, which France concluded with Australia. “They don’t do that with allies … Friendship gives you certain rights, but also responsibilities,” the ex-president said. In his opinion, Macron “was absolutely right to react firmly to this.”
Nevertheless, French analysts have noted some cooling of relations between the two politicians lately. The first disagreement was the alliance concluded in regional elections by the head of the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region, center-right Renault Muselier with the ruling Republic on the March movement. The event touched the ex-president. He was all the more upset that following this, the mayors of Toulon and Nice, Hubert Falco and Christian Estrosi, left the ranks of the right.
Sarkozy loves to demonstrate influence and was going to express support for the incumbent head of state at the start of the new presidential election marathon. He spoke to his supporters about the need for such support so that Macron could resist the leader of the “National Association” Marine Le Pen in the second round of elections.
In exchange, the ex-president, as his entourage makes it clear, would like to receive a portfolio of prime minister for one of his closest associates, François Barouin. He also looks forward to forming a coalition in the National Assembly. Such moves would strengthen the position of the center-right ahead of the 2027 elections. In the absence of a response from Macron, the ex-president clarified the stakes in the negotiations. He is ready to promise support already in the first round in exchange for the right to elect a prime minister and adopt a general government program. According to his entourage, Sarkozy attaches particular importance to raising the retirement age to 64 years.
Meanwhile, the main right-wing contenders for the presidency Michel Barnier, Xavier Bertrand and Valerie Pécresse made a pilgrimage to the ex-president’s working quarters on Miromenil Street to receive blessings from someone who remains a cult figure among Republican supporters.
For the former head of state, this was an opportunity to confirm that he remains at the center of French politics and plans to influence the outcome of the upcoming presidential marathon. It is also a way to warn Macron that his support is far from unconditional. Nicolas Sarkozy loves to change the paradigm, and this should not be forgotten.