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  • Alex Leggett

The Sarkozy Corruption Scandal, Explained

Updated: Dec 21, 2021

Corruption, secret recordings and shady agreements may sound like the plot of the newest spy thriller, but this is what has led former French President Nicolas Sarkozy to a guilty verdict from a Paris court.

This cheat sheet will provide you with a brief overview former French president’s political career, his suspect dealings, and his recent fall from grace.

Who is Nicolas Sarkozy?

Perhaps best known for the role he played as the French president during the Eurozone crisis, Nicolas Sarkozy first gained notoriety in French politics when he became Minister for the Interior in 2002. Sarkozy subsequently became a major figure of French right-wing politics, also serving as Finance Minister. In the 2007 presidential election, he was selected as candidate for the right-wing UMP party (now known as Les Républicains), eventually defeating socialist candidate Ségolène Royal.

As president, Sarkozy sought to implement tax cuts and labour market reforms as well as more business-friendly legislation. However, his presidency was primarily concerned with tackling the fallout of the 2008 global financial crisis and the following Eurozone crisis. Sarkozy’s popularity dropped significantly during his five-year term and he was defeated by François Hollande in the 2012 presidential election.

The President and the Dictator

Following his descent from power, Sarkozy has been mired by numerous allegations of corruption and shady dealings. Perhaps most damaging has been his relationship with Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, the flamboyant dictator who led Libya until he was killed in 2011.

Since 2013, French prosecutors have been investigating allegations that Sarkozy’s 2007 presidential campaign received illicit funding from the Gaddafi regime, a claim supported by Gaddafi’s own son. French outlet Mediapart have suggested that Sarkozy may have received up to €50 million from the Libyan dictator.

Sarkozy in court

‘The Bismuth Affair’

In their inquiry into alleged funding from the Gaddafi regime, French investigators began monitoring Sarkozy’s personal communications in 2013. To their surprise, the conversations they heard sent them toward a new corruption scandal. The monitored communications revealed secret conversations between Sarkozy (using the alias ‘Paul Bismuth’), his lawyer Thierry Herzog, and senior judge Gilbert Azibert.

According to prosecutors, these conversations showed Sarkozy offering to help Azibert get a prestigious job in Monaco in return for information on the so-called ‘Bettencourt case’ — another corruption investigation in which Sarkozy is accused of illegal funding for his 2007 campaign. Although Azibert never received the Monaco job promised to him, the court ruled that Sarkozy’s offer in exchange for information was sufficient to be considered corruption.

Sarkozy and his lawyers have vowed to appeal the conviction, maintaining that these conversations were merely banter between friends and arguing that Sarkozy is the victim of political persecution from a left-wing judicial system.

What next for Sarkozy?

Despite being the first French president to be given a prison sentence, it is unlikely that Nicolas Sarkozy will actually be imprisoned, and he’ll remain free during his appeal. Nevertheless, this decision will undoubtedly impact the trajectory of any future political career. Sarkozy’s reputation may indeed be further tarnished in the coming months by further court appearances for other corruption charges.

With the 2022 presidential elections soon arriving, Sarkozy had been suggested as a potential candidate for the right-wing Les Républicains. Whilst his guilty verdict does not legally prevent him from once again running for the presidency, this negative publicity will likely squander his hopes of returning to frontline politics.

For more information on this topic, head over to our section on Foreign Affairs.

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