President Nicolas Sarkozy's allies came out fighting on Friday as a graft scandal threatened to derail his re-election bid, but their panicked response drew more fire from his opponents.

"/> President Nicolas Sarkozy's allies came out fighting on Friday as a graft scandal threatened to derail his re-election bid, but their panicked response drew more fire from his opponents.

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CORRUPTION

Sarkozy camp fumbles corruption row response

President Nicolas Sarkozy's allies came out fighting on Friday as a graft scandal threatened to derail his re-election bid, but their panicked response drew more fire from his opponents.

Sarkozy camp fumbles corruption row response

This week two of Sarkozy’s closest associates, including the best man at his 2008 wedding, were arrested and charged by police investigating alleged kickbacks on an arms deal and illegal campaign finance contributions.

The money was allegedly kicked back to former prime minister Edouard Balladur’s failed 1995 presidential campaign by middlemen in a contract to supply French submarines to Pakistan.

Sarkozy was the campaign’s spokesman at the time of the alleged payments, but angrily insists he had nothing to do with funding. Government stalwarts leapt to his defence, but the response has been muddled.

“It’s a plot against the president of the republic,” declared centre-right lawmaker Axel Poniatowski, following the lead of many of Sarkozy’s followers in painting the allegations as a political conspiracy.

But the sudden advance in the long-running investigation appears to have more to do with the royal marital troubles of one of Sarkozy’s allies, his 60-year-old former communications adviser Thierry Gaubert.

Gaubert is married to Princess Helene of Yugoslavia but separated from her and she has reportedly told investigators that her husband often travelled to Switzerland with an arms dealer to pick up suitcases full of cash.

Gaubert was charged on Wednesday, but not before Sarkozy’s political adviser and former interior minister Brice Hortefeux called him to warn him.

“She’s giving up a lot, apparently, Helene,” Hortefeux told his friend, according to a transcript of the call, which was intercepted by investigators and leaked to the press, including AFP.

“What news have you got on that? She doesn’t tell me anything,” Gaubert replied. “I don’t want to discuss this on the phone,” Hortefeux warns, adding: “There’s a lot, though, eh?”

“Helene didn’t speak to them directly,” Gaubert insisted, surprised.

“She was interviewed. She knows. She was aware of your activities. Listen, uh, try to swing by one of these days anyway,” Hortefeux replied. Gaubert has been released but has been charged and is under investigation.

Several of Sarkozy’s opponents said the leaked call was evidence that Hortefeux, who is slated to run Sarkozy’s re-election campaign, had access to the records of a supposedly independent investigation.

Hortefeux denied this, insisting he was referring to “journalistic rumours” that Princess Helene was cooperating with the probe, but Sarkozy’s own office had already brought suspicion on itself.

In a terse statement on Thursday, the Elysee Palace declared that Sarkozy had had no role in financing Balladur’s campaign.

It went on to say: “As far as the so-called ‘Karachi affair’ is concerned, the head of state’s name does not appear in any part of the dossier. His name has been cited by no witness nor actor in this case.”

Some questioned this assertion: Sarkozy’s signature as budget minister at the time does reportedly appear on documents setting up a front company to handle commissions on the submarine deal.

But beyond that, how does he know his name has not come up?

In theory, the probe is led by an investigating magistrate, and the Elysee ought not to know what had been discovered until it is complete. Magistrates and Sarkozy’s opponents were quick to denounce the apparent admission.

“Such a slip is genuinely surreal from the presidency of a democracy. Could the Elysee have had access to case files in an ongoing investigation, like in a banana republic?” demanded conservative lawmaker Nicolas Dupont-Aignan.

France will go to the polls in April for the first round of a two round presidential election. With seven months to go, opinion polls show Sarkozy is likely to lose to the victor of the ongoing Socialist primary.

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SARKOZY

Corruption trial begins for France’s ex president Sarkozy

Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy goes on trial on Monday on charges of trying to bribe a judge, in what could be a humiliating postscript to a political career tainted by a litany of legal investigations.

Corruption trial begins for France's ex president Sarkozy
Nicolas Sarkozy. Photo: AFP

Though he is not the first modern head of state in the dock – his predecessor and political mentor Jacques Chirac was convicted of embezzlement – Sarkozy is the first to face corruption charges.

He fought furiously over the past six years to have the case thrown out, and has denounced “a scandal that will go down in history”.

“I am not a crook,” the 65-year-old, whose combative style has made him one of France's most popular rightwing politicians, told BFM TV this month.

Prosecutors say Sarkozy promised the judge a plush job in Monaco in exchange for inside information on an inquiry into claims that Sarkozy accepted illicit payments from L'Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt for his 2007 presidential campaign.

Their case rests in large part on wiretaps of phone conversations between Sarkozy and his longtime lawyer Thierry Herzog, which judges authorised as prosecutors also looked into suspected Libyan financing of Sarkozy's 2007 campaign.

That inquiry is still underway, though Sarkozy caught a break this month when his main accuser, the French-Lebanese businessman Ziad Takieddine, suddenly retracted his claim of delivering millions of euros in cash from Libyan dictator Moamer Kadhafi.

Sarkozy and Herzog have assailed the taps on their phones as a breach of client-attorney privilege, but in 2016 a top court upheld their use as evidence.

Charged with bribery and influence peddling, Sarkozy risks a prison sentence of up to 10 years and a maximum fine of €1 million.

Herzog, a leading member of the Paris bar, faces the same charges as well as violation of professional secrecy. The trial is expected to last three weeks.

'A boost'

Investigators discovered that Sarkozy used an alias – Paul Bismuth – to buy a private phone for conversing secretly with his lawyer.

On around a dozen occasions, they discussed reaching out to a top French judge, Gilbert Azibert, a general counsel at the Cour de Cassation, France's top appeals court for criminal and civil cases.

Prosecutors say Azibert, who is also on trial, was tasked with trying to obtain information from the Cour de Cassation lawyer in charge of the Bettencourt inquiry, and to induce him to seek a verdict in Sarkozy's favour.

In exchange, Sarkozy would use his extensive contacts to give “a boost” to Azibert's efforts to secure the cushy Monaco post.

“He's been working on it,” Herzog tells Sarkozy in a call from early 2014.
Azibert was already considered a leading candidate for the job, but “if you give him a boost, it's always better,” Herzog says in another.

“I'll make him move up,” Sarkozy tells Herzog, according to the indictment by prosecutors, who compared his actions to those of a “seasoned offender”.

But later, Sarkozy tells his lawyer that he would not “approach” the  Monaco authorities on Azibert's behalf — a sign, according to prosecutors, that the two men had been tipped off about the wiretaps.

“Mr Azibert never got any post in Monaco,” Sarkozy told BFM television this month – though under French law, just an offer or promise can constitute corruption.

Still in limelight

Sarkozy, a lawyer by training, has long accused the French judiciary of waging a vendetta against him, not least because of his attempts to limit judges' powers and criticism that they are too soft on delinquents.

He will again be back in court in March 2021 along with 13 other people over claims of campaign finance violations during his unsuccessful 2012 re-election bid.

Prosecutors accuse Sarkozy's team of using a fake-invoices scheme orchestrated by the public relations firm Bygmalion to spend nearly €43 million on the lavish run – nearly twice the legal limit.

The long-running legal travails hindered his comeback bid for the 2017 presidential vote, losing out as the rightwing nominee to his former prime minister François Fillon.

Yet like other former French presidents, Sarkozy has surfed a wave of popularity since announcing his retirement from politics in 2018, pressing the flesh with enthusiastic crowds at his public appearances.

Lines of fans queued over the summer to have him sign his latest memoirs, “The Time of Storms”, which topped best-seller lists for weeks.

SEE ALSO: Sarkozy accused of racism after 'monkey' comment

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