One thing that can be said for certain about next year’s presidential elections in France is that they will not feature Nicolas Sarkozy. Whatever hopes the former head of state may have entertained about returning to power were dashed on Monday when he was found guilty of bribing a judge and sentenced to three years in prison.
The days when top French politicians could get away with just about anything while running the country look to be well and truly over.
Sarkozy has appealed against the judgement and is currently out on bail. His sentence of three years includes two years suspended, and with good behaviour he could be freed after just eight months. There is even a chance, hinted at by the trial judge, that he could serve his jail time at home, equipped with an elecronic ankle tag.
That said, he faces further criminal charges in connection with payments into his 2007 campaign fund that, allegedly, were unlawfully made by the L’Oreal heiress Lilianne Bettancourte, who died in 2017, aged 95, leaving an estate valued at some €40 billion. Those charges could see the former President banged up for considerably longer than 12 months.
Sarkozy remains something of a force of nature in French politics. As the King of Bling, he was known for the lavishness of his lifestyle while in the Élysée. He entertained like a Bourbon and spent much of his generous free time in the company of billionaires, tycoons and movie stars.
If tragedy is not too big a word to apply to him – and it is – his downfall was the result not of incompetence or lack of vision, but of hubris, the nemesis of which is now in full view.
The case of which he was convicted sounds, on the face of it, almost trivial. He wanted to know how the main case against him – the Bettencourt case – was proceeding, and bribed one of the examining magistrates to keep him informed with the promise of a judicial promotion in the playground of Monaco.
The magistrate in question, Gilbert Azibert, and Sarkozy’s personal lawyer, Thierry Herzog, were also convicted and each sentenced to three years in jail, with two years suspended.
It seems almost redundant to say that the proffered promotion did not happen and that there was no obvious vacancy in the principality which Azibert could have filled even if the choice had been Sarkozy’s alone to make, which it wasn’t.
If the ex-President does end up in clink, it will almost certainly be at the far end of a lengthy judicial process. His appeal is unlikely to be held this year, and his involvement in the larger, substantive case further complicates the issue.
But the word has gone out. The days of playing fast and loose in the Élysée are over … probably.
Sign up for our FREE Reaction Weekend Email
Read the week's best-read articles on politics, business and geopolitics
Receive offers and exclusive invites
Plus uplifting cultural commentary
Last year, François Fillon, Sarkozy’s successor as leader of the French Conservatives (currently styling themselves Les Républicains) was sentenced to five years in prison for defrauding the French state of half a million euros paid to his wife, Penelope, for consultancy work that turned out to be bogus. Madame Fillon, born in Wales as Penelope Clarke, received a sentence of three years. But neither has yet served a day behind bars. The Fillons’ appeal does not come up until November of this year and there is a good chance the couple will get to spend Christmas in their chateau outside Le Mans.
On the other hand, the intriguing possibility now exists that Sarkozy and Fillon – between whom no love is lost – could end up as prison buddies.
The arrest, prosecution and conviction of conservative leaders in France has become something of a habit in recent years. Two-time president Jacques Chirac, also from the centre-right, was given a two-year suspended sentence by a Paris court in 2011 for diverting state funds and abusing public office. He died in 2019, but had the three amigos defied the space-time continuum and ended up in the same cell-block together, their party would have been a laughing stock. As it is, it lives to fight again, albeit under no one in particular.
Sarkozy, as could have been predicted, was outraged by the sentence imposed on him for the mere misdemeanor, as he no doubt saw it, of looking for a bit of information from a trusted source – always assuming that had been the case, which it wasn’t. At one point during the trial, he was jumping up and down and had to be verbally sedated by his defence counsel.
On Monday, however, he trudged home without saying a word. How long his silence will last, nobody knows.
Until recently, there were those who thought Sarko might rise again and, Trump-like, take another tilt at the top job. He toured the country last year, dropping into mayors’ offices and local party HQs, sounding them out and presenting himself as the man who could beat Emmanuel Macron in 2022. Weirdly, Macron joined in, inviting the old fraud to lunch and letting it be known that he valued his advice.
That is all now in the past. Sarkozy has a real fight on his hands if he is to stay out of jail. Even if he wins his appeal this time round, the Bettencourt case, with its inevitable suggestion of bilking an old woman out of her money, is just around the corner. Meanwhile, his wife, the ex-model and singer Carla Bruni, has gone back on tour, promoting her latest album, called simply, Carla Bruni. The talk is that her husband could lose his former-president’s perks, including a generous pension and staff provision, and it may be that she thinks it is now her job to be the breadwinner.
Either that or apply for a divorce.
Back in the real world, the disappearance from the fray of a formidable political operator represents a boost to Macron, however slight. The centre-right has begun to look like a crime school. If only he could organise similar vanishing acts by Marine Le Pen, from the far right, and Anne Hildalgo, the mayor of Paris, both pretenders to his throne. But Le Pen has so far beaten off a slew of messy legal challenges, while Hidalgo, who has yet to declare her hand, is very much on the straight and narrow. This is where the hard work starts.