Former president Nicolas Sarkozy should stand trial for the “illegal” funding of his failed 2012 presidential election campaign, say French prosecutors. It is now for the judges who carried out the original investigation to make the final decision – expected within the next month – as to whether Sarkozy will be sent for trial.
If the judges do follow the prosecutors' recommendations that decision is likely to come shortly before the Right's primary election, to be held on November 20th and 27th, in which Sarkozy is seeking to become the official candidate for next spring's presidential election. If he is indeed sent for trial it will be seen as a political blow to his election hopes. But in strict legal terms it would not be an obstacle to his presidential ambitions as the trial would not be held before next May's presidential election. And if he were elected president then, the proceedings would be deferred to the end of his term of office, in other words to at least 2022.
Sarkozy was formally placed under investigation in the so-called Bygmalion affair in February this year for “suspected illegal financing of an election campaign for a candidate, who went beyond the legal limit for electoral spending”. He is said to have breached article 113-1 of the electoral code by having “omitted to respect the formalities in preparing campaign accounts” and to have “stated, in the campaign accounts or in their appendixes, accounts information that was deliberately underestimated”.
If convicted of the “illegal funding” of his campaign the former president, who denies any wrongdoing, faces a potential sentence of a year's imprisonment and a fine of 3,750 euros.
The affair itself centres on broader claims that a communications firm, Bygmalion, falsely billed the right-wing UMP party – now Les Républicains - for up to 17 million euros to avoid Sarkozy's 2012 presidential campaign busting election spending limits. Sarkozy himself is not suspected of having had knowledge of this false billing fraud. The investigation also found that millions more – at least 8.2 million euros – were paid by the UMP on behalf of the election campaign for transport, printing, tee-shirts and other items. In relation to this expenditure Sarkozy is suspected by prosecutors of having incurred “election spending at a level above the legal ceiling … and in filing election accounts that omitted electoral expenditure paid by the UMP for the [candidate's] account”.
According to the prosecutors' report, dated August 30th, and seen by Mediapart, prosecution lawyers believe Sarkozy has a case to answer for “illegal campaign funding” because “it has been shown that he had given … instructions in favour of increasing spending, in defiance of the contrary recommendations of the accountants”. Prosecutors base their case in particular on a note dated March 12th, 2012, and written by one of the accountants. It was addressed to Guillaume Lambert, then Sarkozy's campaign director, and warned about the spending already committed to and asked for it to be limited. Under questioning, Lambert told the judges that he had told the presidential candidate about this letter, something which Sarkozy himself had judged “possible”. The prosecution thus considers that it was “with full knowledge of the facts” because he “knew from mid-March that that the spending limit had been exceeded” that Nicolas Sarkozy authorised the organisation of 44 political gatherings that took place subsequent to the reception of the letter.
In all, the former president's campaign spent 45.8 million euros, which is double the legal limit of 22.5 million euros.
The prosecution authorities have recommended that a total of 14 people, including Sarkozy, who have been placed under examination over the affair, should stand trial. They include Guillaume Lambert and Éric Cesari, the UMP's former managing director who is also close to the former president. They were placed under formal examination in April 2015 and 2014 respectively.
Opinion polls have shown Sarkozy, who returned to front-line politics in 2014 after quitting the political scene in 2012 following his defeat to François Hollande, behind his main rival the mayor of Bordeaux Alain Juppé. But they also indicate that the former head of state has been rapidly closing the gap between the pair.
Nicolas Sarkozy's lawyer Thierry Herzog reacted angrily to the prosecution's request for a trial, claiming that the move was made “without regard to all legal rules” and was “crude political manoeuvring”. He said that the prosecution authorities were seeking to get his client tried over facts for which he had not been put under formal investigation in February 2016. Herzog referred back to a prosecution press release from February 16th in which “the Paris prosecutor pointed out that President Nicolas Sarkozy had only been put under investigation on the indictment of exceeding the campaign accounts limit”. Herzog also noted that the announcement of the prosecution's recommendation was leaked on the day that one of President François Hollande's former ministers, Jérôme Cahuzac, went on trial on tax fraud charges. “This demonstrates once again the crude political manoeuvring of this move,” said Sarkozy's lawyer.
This interpretation of the move was supported by Les Républicains MP Éric Ciotti, a close supporter of the former president. “This news was published by the press at the time when Jérôme Cahuzac's trial was beginning. This coincidence of timing cannot be put down to chance,” the MP said. “They're trying to throw up a smokescreen. They're trying to suggest that he's linked to an affair that doesn't involve him, even though he was put under formal investigation for exceeding the campaign account limit.”
- The French version of this article can be found here.
English version by Michael Streeter