Nicolas Sarkozy, the glamorous former president of France, stepped into a French courtroom Monday afternoon on the opening day of a high-profile trial that could see him jailed for ten years and fined a million euros.
The famously dapper former leader was flanked by his star lawyer Jacqueline Laffont, and appeared to be smiling under his mask according to one journalist and observer, as he greeted lawyers and even stopped to chat briefly with the two prosecutors, a man and a woman.
The case is being seen as a seminal moment in Paris, where rich and powerful elites have long been able to push legal limits and a key test for France’s anti-corruption laws.
Sarkozy, who is married to the singer, model, and actress Carla Bruni, is not the first modern French head of state in the dock—that unhappy distinction belongs to his predecessor and mentor Jacques Chirac, who was convicted of embezzlement in 2011.
He is, however, the first to face outright corruption charges, according to France 24.
Monday’s appearance in a Paris courtroom marks the failure of a six-year struggle by Sarkozy to have the case, known in France as the “bugging affair,” thrown out.
Sarkozy, who still inspires fierce devotion on the right in French politics, has called the case against him “a scandal that will go down in history.”
Sarkozy is accused by prosecutors of promising a plum job to a judge who was overseeing an inquiry into claims that Sarkozy accepted illicit payments from L'Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt for a presidential campaign in exchange for inside information.
Sarkozy’s lawyer Thierry Herzog is also accused.
In a separate case, he is being formally investigated over allegations of accepting millions of dollars in illicit campaign donations from the late Libyan leader, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi in 2007. A few months after the election, he invited Gaddafi to Paris on a state visit, and let him pitch his Bedouin tent opposite the Elysee Palace, The Guardian reports.
Another investigation is also underway into allegations that he overspent by more than €20m in his failed re-election bid in 2012.
Sarkozy, a lawyer by training, has denied wrongdoing in all cases, telling a recent TV interview, “I am not rotten.”
Sarkozy continues to be an influential figure in French life, and rumors of his imminent political comeback are a regular feature of the French media.
He sits on the boards of several of France’s biggest companies and his recently published memoir topped the country’s book charts for several weeks. The Time of Storms recounts the first two dramatic years of his presidency when his wife Cecilia left him and he married Bruni after a whirlwind romance. Fans queued up to have him sign copies of the book.
The cult of Sarkozy appeared to extend inside the courtroom today, with reports that he was saluted by a policeman inside the courtroom which was described as “incredible” by critics on social media.
The Financial Times says that the case against him rests in large part on wiretaps of phone conversations between Sarkozy and his lawyer Thierry Herzog, which were authorized as prosecutors looked into the suspected Libyan financing of Sarkozy’s 2007 campaign. Sarkozy and Herzog allegedly offered a top job to judge Gilbert Azibert in exchange for information. Azibert is also accused in the current case.
Investigators have alleged that Sarkozy used an alias, Paul Bismuth, to buy a private phone for conversing secretly with his lawyer, and the hashtag #bismuth was trending on Twitter in France today.
The defendants, Sarkozy, Herzog, and Azibert, face up to 10 years in prison and large fines if convicted. They have all maintained their innocence.
“I am combative, I have no intention of being accused of things I haven’t done. I’m not corrupt and what has been inflicted on me is a scandal that will rest in the annals. The truth will out,” Sarkozy told BFMTV earlier this month.
Azibert, 74, did not appear at court today, with his lawyers citing the risk associated with the coronavirus, according to a medical certificate, and the hearing was swiftly suspended until Thursday.