As Donald Trump basks in the adulation of his conservative minions and talks about a political comeback in 2024, he should take note of what just happened in France: a special court today (March 1) sentenced former French President Nicolas Sarkozy to three years in prison—two years suspended, and one year hard time—after convicting him of corruption in the “affaire des écoutes,” or wiretap affair.
The case goes back to 2014, when Sarkozy and his lawyer carried out a series of telephone conversations with a French judicial official, Gilbert Azibert. The subject of their discussions: the ex-president wanted Azibert to provide information about an investigation into Sarkozy’s role in another case, the so-called “Bettencourt affair” (about which more later). In exchange, Sarkozy, though his lawyer, promised to help Azibert win a cushy judicial post in Monaco.
The discussions were carried on via a supposedly secret cellphone account in the name of “Paul Bismuth”(a.k.a. Sarkozy himself). Unbeknownst to the former president, however, police had obtained a warrant to wiretap the “Bismuth” phone line in connection with still another case involving suspected illegal contributions to Sarkozy’s campaign fund by former Libyan dictator Mouammar Kadhafi. While probing the Kadhafi case, investigators stumbled on the tit-for-tat discussions between Sarkozy’s lawyer, Thierry Herzog, and Gilbert Azibert.
Though the deal never came to fruition—Azibert did not perform the services Sarkozy requested, and did not get the Monaco appointment that Sarkozy had dangled—the court ruled that the discussions constituted corruption and convicted all three men. Sarkozy, Herzog, and Azibert were all sentenced to three years with two suspended. All three men have filed appeals.
Sarkozy thus becomes the second former French president to be convicted by a criminal court after Jacques Chirac, who in 2011 was found guilty of diverting funds and abuse of confidence during his time as mayor of Paris. Chirac, who died in 2019, received a two-year suspended sentence. Thus Sarkozy may well become the first ex-president of France to actually do hard time. If that sentence holds up upon appeal, Sarkozy may work out an arrangement to spend his carceral year confined to his domicile with an electronic bracelet rather than behind bars. Whatever the outcome of the appeal, he still must face trial in two other cases: the Kadhafi affair, and a separate case involving 2012 campaign spending violations. Thus a political comeback seems highly unlikely for the 66-year-old conservative. Perhaps his fate can serve as a lesson and a precedent for how democracies deal with corrupt former leaders. Beware Donald Trump: the prosecutor cometh.
Now about the Bettencourt Affair, which was at the origin of the wiretap case. That concerns a messy suit revolving around the world’s then richest woman, L’Oréal heiress Liliane Bettencourt. Bettencourt had lavished gifts worth hundreds of millions (yes millions) of dollars to her much younger protégé, French artist/photographer François-Marie Banier. The largesse flowed for some twenty years until Liliane’s daughter Françoise sued Banier for elder abuse in 2009. The investigation turned up information about illegal contributions to Sarkozy’s campaign by the Bettencourt family. The information Sarkozy sought from Gilbert Azibert in exchange for a Monaco appointment was related to that investigation. (Sarkozy was actually indicted in the Bettencourt case, but the charges were dropped in 2015.)
I happen to know a lot about the Bettencourt case, having written a long article on it for Vanity Fair in 2010 and a book, “The Bettencourt Affair,” which came out in 2017.