France’s Nicolas Sarkozy: ‘Bling’ and legal woes

Nicolas Sarkozy is the first ex-president in post-war France to have been given a custodial sentence for corruption.

He and two former associates were each sentenced to three years in jail – two of them suspended – on 1 March, for influence-peddling and violation of professional secrecy.

Sarkozy, 66, had tried to bribe a magistrate in return for information on an investigation into his campaign finances, the judge ruled. He denies wrongdoing and is expected to appeal.

That magistrate – Gilbert Azibert – and lawyer Thierry Herzog were the two sentenced alongside him. Police had recorded secret phone calls where Sarkozy was reportedly heard telling Herzog: „I’ll get him promoted, I’ll help him.“

Sarkozy’s wife – singer and ex-supermodel Carla Bruni – denounced the sentence as „a senseless witch-hunt“. Sarkozy can serve the one-year custodial term at home with an electronic tag.

Court battles

Sarkozy, a conservative former interior minister, has been beset by corruption investigations since his 2007-2012 presidency in France.

He is also due to go on trial in a separate case, from 17 March to 15 April, which relates to the so-called Bygmalion affair. He is accused of having fraudulently overspent in his 2012 presidential campaign, which he lost to Socialist rival François Hollande.

Sarkozy is also accused of having received illegal funds from the late Libyan dictator Col Muammar Gaddafi for his 2007 presidential campaign. The charges are: membership in a criminal conspiracy, corruption, illegal campaign financing and benefiting from embezzled public funds.

Losing to Mr Hollande in 2012 made him the first French president not to be re-elected for a second term since Valéry Giscard d’Estaing in 1981.

Sarkozy’s conservative predecessor as French president, the late Jacques Chirac, got a two-year suspended sentence in 2011 for having arranged bogus jobs at Paris City Hall for allies when he was Paris mayor. Chirac died in 2019.

‘Bling-bling’ presidency

Sarkozy sought the presidency again in 2016, but the Republicans – the rebranded UMP – instead nominated ex-Prime Minister François Fillon. Mr Fillon lost to the young and charismatic liberal Emmanuel Macron, who won the 2017 presidential election.

Critics nicknamed the 2007-2012 Sarkozy presidency „bling-bling“, seeing his leadership style as too brash, celebrity-driven and hyperactive for a role steeped in tradition and grandeur.

At an agricultural show in 2008 he famously lost his temper with a man who refused to shake his hand. Mr Sarkozy told him: „Get lost, scumbag“ – a rough translation of the vulgar expression he used.

His celebrity image was reinforced by his marriage to Carla Bruni in 2008. The couple had a daughter, Giulia, a few months before the 2012 election.

Sarkozy, who is twice divorced, also has a son from his second marriage and two sons from his first marriage.

Not among the elite

The son of a Hungarian immigrant and a French mother of Greek-Jewish origin, he was baptised a Roman Catholic and grew up in Paris.

Unlike most of the French ruling class, Sarkozy did not go to the Ecole Nationale d’Administration, but trained as a lawyer.

He also studied political science in Paris before launching himself into politics. His rise to the top began as mayor of Neuilly-sur-Seine, an affluent Paris suburb which he ran from 1983.

Initially a protege of Jacques Chirac, he became the right-hand man of Prime Minister Edouard Balladur in 1993-95, serving as budget minister.

When he backed Mr Balladur for the presidency in 1995, the decision caused a lasting rift with Chirac, the successful candidate.

Chirac famously chided him in his memoirs for being „irritable, rash, overconfident and allowing for no doubt, least of all regarding himself“.

Tough on immigration

As interior minister in 2005 he notoriously talked of hosing down troubled housing estates, describing young delinquents in the Paris suburbs as racaille, or rabble.

That blunt comment – made before the 2005 riots in neglected suburbs- encouraged some critics to put him in the same category as the then far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen.

Later as president he pushed through measures to curb illegal immigration – including highly controversial mass deportations of Roma (Gypsies).

At the same time, he advocated positive discrimination to help reduce youth unemployment – a challenge to those wedded to the French idea of equality.

Some of his appointments surprised the French political establishment: Rachida Dati became France’s first cabinet minister of North African origin, in charge of justice, while Socialist Bernard Kouchner was made foreign minister.

Towards the end of his presidency, unemployment claims surged to their highest level in 12 years.

Yet he had been at the forefront of the European response to the global economic crisis in 2008 and helped establish the G20 summits involving the world’s biggest economies.

He also saw through unpopular, but arguably necessary, reforms: raising the retirement age from 60 to 62; relaxing the strict 35-hour working week introduced by the Socialists; overhauling the universities and altering the tax system to encourage overtime and home ownership.

Statesman

On the international stage, Sarkozy was often described as an Atlanticist, though he opposed the US-led war in Iraq.

He admired the UK’s then-Prime Minister Tony Blair, saying „[his] pragmatism has served his country well“.

In March 2011, France was first to send warplanes into action against Gaddafi’s forces in Libya, spearheading the foreign intervention that enabled the Libyan rebels to succeed. The Western role has drawn some criticism however because Libya quickly descended into factional fighting.

Sarkozy was credited with brokering an end to the August 2008 conflict between Russia and Georgia, though Russia later consolidated its grip on parts of Georgia.

In response to the global financial crisis of 2008, he vowed to punish speculators and advocated a strong state role in the economy.

Leading the EU response, he developed a close working relationship with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

bbc news

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