PARIS — A Paris court on Monday found French former President Nicolas Sarkozy guilty of corruption and influence peddling and sentenced him to one year in prison and a two-year suspended sentence.
The 66-year-old politician, who was president from 2007 to 2012, was convicted for having tried to illegally obtain information from a senior magistrate in 2014 about a legal action in which he was involved.
The court said Sarkozy is entitled to request to be detained at home with an electronic bracelet.
This is the first time in France’s modern history that a former president has been convicted of corruption.
Sarkozy’s co-defendants — his lawyer and longtime friend Thierry Herzog, 65, and now-retired magistrate Gilbert Azibert, 74 — were also found guilty and given the same sentence as the politician.
The court found that Sarkozy and his co-defendants sealed a “pact of corruption,” based on “consistent and serious evidence”.
The court said the facts were “particularly serious” given that they were committed by a former president who used his status to help a magistrate who had served his personal interest. In addition, as a lawyer by training, he was “perfectly informed” about committing an illegal action, the court said.
Sarkozy had firmly denied all the allegations against him during the 10-day trial that took place at the end of last year.
The corruption trial focused on phone conversations that took place in February 2014.
At the time, investigative judges had launched an inquiry into the financing of the 2007 presidential campaign. During the investigation they incidentally discovered that Sarkozy and Herzog were communicating via secret mobile phones registered to the alias “Paul Bismuth.”
Conversations wiretapped on these phones led prosecutors to suspect Sarkozy and Herzog of promising Azibert a job in Monaco in exchange for leaking information about another legal case, known by the name of France’s richest woman, L’Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt.
In one of these phone calls with Herzog, Sarkozy said of Azibert : “I’ll make him move up … I’ll help him.”
In another, Herzog reminded Sarkozy to “say a word” for Azibert during a trip to Monaco.
Legal proceedings against Sarkozy have been dropped in the Bettencourt case. Azibert never got the Monaco job.
Prosecutors have concluded, however, that the “clearly stated promise” constitutes in itself a corruption offense under French law, even if the promise wasn’t fulfilled.
Sarkozy vigorously denied any malicious intention.
He told the court that his political life was all about “giving [people] a little help. That’s all it is, a little help,” he said during the trial.
The confidentiality of communications between a lawyer and his client was a major point of contention in the trial.
“You have in front of you a man of whom more than 3,700 private conversations have been wiretapped … What did I do to deserve that?” Sarkozy said during the trial.
Sarkozy’s defense lawyer, Jacqueline Laffont, argued the whole case was based on “small talk” between a lawyer and his client.
The court concluded that the use of wiretapped conversations was legal as long as they helped show evidence of corruption-related offenses.
Sarkozy withdrew from active politics after failing to be chosen as his conservative party’s presidential candidate for France’s 2017 election, won by Emmanuel Macron.
He remains very popular amid right-wing voters, however, and plays a major role behind the scenes, including through maintaining a relationship with Macron, whom he is said to advise on certain topics. His memoirs published last year, “The Time of Storms,” was a bestseller for weeks.
Sarkozy will face another trial later this month along with 13 other people on charges of illegal financing of his 2012 presidential campaign.
His conservative party is suspected of having spent 42.8 million euros ($50.7 million), almost twice the maximum authorized, to finance the campaign, which ended in victory for Socialist rival Francois Hollande.
In another investigation opened in 2013, Sarkozy is accused of having taken millions from then-Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi to illegally finance his 2007 campaign.
He was handed preliminary charges of passive corruption, illegal campaign financing, concealment of stolen assets from Libya and criminal association. He has denied wrongdoing.
Story by Sylvie Corbet.