Five questions raised by Nicolas Sarkozy's conviction

Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy at his trial in Paris, where he was sentenced to three years in prison on March 1, 2021.
Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy at his trial in Paris, where he was sentenced to three years in prison on March 1, 2021. © Anne-Christine Poujoulat, AFP

On March 1, Nicolas Sarkozy became the first former president of the Fifth Republic to be sentenced to prison for corruption and influence peddling in the so-called "eavesdropping" affair. The unprecedented verdict, though, doesn’t end the saga. Sarkozy has undertaken a media tour to "denounce a profound injustice".


Is the 'eavesdropping affair' now over?

Sarkozy, who has always stated that he has never committed "the slightest corrupt act", announced that he intends to appeal his conviction, as did his longtime lawyer, Thierry Herzog, and the ex-magistrate Gilbert Azibert, both of whom were convicted alongside him. A second trial is likely to take place in 2022. "This verdict … does not put an end to this case," Jean Petaux, a political scientist at Sciences Po Bordeaux, told FRANCE 24.

If Sarkozy does not win his appeal, he can still appeal to the Court of Cassation, the highest French court, whose function is to verify the correct application of the law. He could also turn to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) because his defence is partly based on the question of the legality of wiretaps, which are at the core of the allegations against Sarkozy and Herzog.

"Perhaps this fight will need to go before the European Court of Human Rights," Sarkozy told Le Figaro newspaper. "It would be painful for me to have to condemn my own country, but I am ready to do so, because that would be the price of democracy."

Will Sarkozy go to prison?

For now, the appeal postpones the sentence. Yet it seems equally unlikely that Sarkozy will do jail time in the long term, since he was eligible to serve his sentence under house arrest and with electronic surveillance. In fact even those restrictions could be relaxed at a judge's discretion.

Sarkozy’s age, 66, and his position as a former president were mitigating factors for the court, which also said that it was unlikely – even impossible  that he would repeat his crimes.

Does this conviction compromise Sarkozy's possible presidential ambitions for 2022? 

He is not barred from running but, as the 2022 presidential election approaches, "his name regularly returns to the lips of leaders and voters on the right in search of a natural candidate," said Petaux. “But the man’s legal troubles are not over." 

An appeal may take several months. And after the "eavesdropping" trial, Sarkozy faces two more trials over campaign funding. "The political agenda is not the judicial agenda, so we can assume that he will not be acquitted of all charges by 2022," Petaux said.

What’s more, the sentence tarnishes Sarkozy’s image. "It is becoming extremely heavy baggage," political scientist Pascal Perrineau told AFP. Though it may be true that in politics one is never dead, "for 2022 he is deeply affected," he added.

But does the former tenant of the Élysée Palace really want to return to the forefront of the political scene anyway? It seems not, if we're to take him at his word. Sarkozy "has always said that the political page has indeed been turned", Bruno Cautrès, a CNRS researcher at the Cevipof, told FRANCE24.

Could this first verdict influence the outcome of the other Sarkozy cases that will soon head to court?

Sarkozy has another trial beginning on March 17, over the the so-called Bygmalion affair, concerning the financing of his 2012 presidential campaign. He is also charged in a case concerning suspicions over Libyan financing of his presidential 2007 campaign.

While a different court will hear the Bygmalion case, it will be difficult to disregard the conviction that was handed down two weeks earlier. Many observers agree that Sarkozy may well use his conviction to cry judicial harassment.

And Sarkozy’s defence has essentially taken a hit. While Herzog is free to keep practicing law despite his conviction, thanks to the pending appeal, he won’t be arguing his client’s case from a position of strength.

Why is the case causing controversy around the National Financial Prosecutor's Office? 

During the heated trial, Sarkozy’s lawyers continually hammered the National Financial Prosecutor's Office (PNF), calling the case "garbage" and demanding the cancellation of the entire procedure, which was based on what they called "illegal" wiretaps of conversations between a lawyer and his client.

In response, national prosecutor Jean-François Bohnert made a personal appearance on December 8 in support of the charges and, more broadly, the institution, assuring that this trial was not a matter of "institutional vengeance [...] against a former president of the Republic".

Created in 2013 by then-President François Hollande, the PNF has been the subject of fierce controversy since its start, particularly in regard to its investigative methods. Several elected officials on the right have called for its abolition.

"The French people know little or nothing about the National Financial Prosecutor's Office and this type of case allows it to gain visibility," Cautrès said. "For the past 15 years, France has been committed to making progress in matters relating to the ethics of public and political life. The country was lagging behind its European neighbours in this respect, and the damage is now being repaired."

Elected officials on the right do not see the institution in the same light, and consider Sarkozy's conviction as further proof of its bias. Among Republicans, the conviction reawakens bitter memories of 2017, when François Fillon was eliminated in the first round of the presidential election after the PNF opened an investigation into a fake jobs scandal involving his wife, Penelope.

"There will be a before and after this Sarkozy affair that I still link very strongly to the Fillon affair," said Les Républicans Senator Valérie Boyer. "Without the PNF, I don't think Emmanuel Macron would be President of the Republic."

This article was translated from the original in French.

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