France’s Anti-Corruption Movement: Sarkozy Ordered To Stand Trial

A scandal is currently rocking the French political landscape in a way that has not been seen before. The former French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, his lawyer, Thierry Herzog, and Mr. Azibert, one of the magistrates of France’s highest court, the Court of Cassation,  have been ordered to stand trial. A first for France’s democratic and judicial institutions.

Sarkozy is alleged to have used the alias Paul Bismuth when contacting Mr. Azibert in order to convince him to reveal information to Sarkozy about a separate financing case in which the former French president is accused of receiving illegal campaign contributions from L’Oreal Heiress, Liliane Bettencourt, in order to win the 2007 French presidential election. Sarkozy attempted to leverage his connections to get Mr. Azibert a highly-regarded position in Monaco. Sarkozy was later cleared of the campaign financing case in which Mr. Azibert resided on, but the phone call whereby he attempted to influence the judge had been wiretapped by French authorities, leading to the charges of influence peddling and corruption. Sarkozy attempted to invalidate the wiretap in court and failed.

Scandals regarding Mr. Sarkozy are nothing new to France, as these cases have been public knowledge for quite some time now. The remarkable part is that they are now actually proceeding to trial. In addition to this case, Sarkozy is also being investigated in a separate case regarding illicit campaign contributions made by the late and deposed, former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. For years now, the allegations have dodged the former president, but they took a sharp escalation after Sarkozy was held for questioning for two days.

Investigations of this nature against a former head of state in France are rare and could set the precedent for accountability for decades to come. Sarkozy is also currently being charged – a first for a former French president – in the Bygmalion scandal for committing accounting fraud during his 2012 election, in which he lost to Socialist candidate Francois Hollande, the first time since 1981 that a French president had not won a second term.  Sarkozy attempted another comeback in the 2016 elections, but failed to qualify for his party’s nomination after Francois Fillon won the centre-right primary.

Sarkozy, on his part, has denied any wrongdoing in relation to the Libyan funding allegations and has said that the investigators are making his life “hell,” and saying that he is being  “accused without any physical evidence.” A French-Lebanese businessman named Ziad Takieddine, as well as some former Gaddafi regime officials, were the first to ever make the claims against Sarkozy.

Takieddine told French media in November of 2016 that he had handed over three suitcases filled with 200 and 500 euro notes to Sarkozy himself and his former chief of staff, Claude Guéant. The payments allegedly totaled 5 million euros.

Sarkozy was released on Wednesday, after two days of questioning, and seems to be apparently attempting to convince the public and investigators that this is revenge from former Libyan government officials over his decision to deploy French warplanes during the uprising which overthrew Gaddafi, a part of the Arab Spring, in 2011. Police also questioned one of Sarkozy’s former ministers, Brice Hortefeux, who is also considered a close ally.

The former chairman of Libya’s wealth fund at the time of the campaign, Bashir Saleh, confirmed to French newspaper Le Monde that Gaddafi had indeed financed Mr. Sarkozy. If charges relating to this case are brought forward, the former president can stand accused of influence peddling, fraud, handling of stolen goods and money laundering. At the time of the alleged illicit campaign contributions in 2007, Gaddafi was on good relations with most European leaders, and had been in power for almost four decades. Gaddafi considered himself quite safe from being deposed.

Throughout Sarkozy’s presidency, Gaddafi attempted to position himself as one of Africa’s most influential leaders and use Libya’s enormous resource wealth to set out an Africa-wide, gold-backed currency, which would have given the continent larger control over its resources and funds at a value that wasn’t determined by western nations. This is no easy feat and Gaddafi definitely saw that he needed European allies, and especially France, a strong Mediterranean regional power, to accomplish these political tasks.

There could be merit to Sarkozy’s claims that the allegations surfacing do amount as a revenge campaign by former Libyan officials, but French investigators will likely disregard the revenge aspect to ascertain why they are specifically seeking revenge on Sarkozy, as compared to the several other European and world leaders involved in the campaign. Perhaps they feel betrayed, perhaps they feel that they had bought his cooperation and that Sarkozy did not fulfill.

What is known for sure at this point, though, is that Nicolas Sarkozy’s tendency to blur the lines of politics and corruption within France’s institutions have snowballed and now avalanched to amount to his appearance in court for his attempts to influence a sitting judge. While this is happening, he will still be investigated for the Libyan funding case and he seems to be out of cards to play to save himself in the era of Emmanuel Macron.