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POLITICS

Campaign finance trial opens for French ex-president Sarkozy

Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy goes on trial Thursday over claims of illicit financing for his failed 2012 re-election campaign, just weeks after the rightwing heavyweight was convicted in a landmark corruption trial.

Campaign finance trial opens for French ex-president Sarkozy
Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy gets in his car as he leaves to a Paris courthouse, in Paris on May 20, 2021, for the start of the trial in the so-called Bygmalion case. Photo: THOMAS COEX / AFP

Sarkozy, 66, became France’s first postwar president to be sentenced to prison when judges gave him a three-year term in March for corruption and influence peddling, though under sentencing rules he will not spend any time behind bars.

In Thursday’s proceedings, he and 13 others are accused of setting up or benefiting from a fake billing scheme to cover millions of euros in excess spending on campaign rallies to fend off his Socialist rival Francois Hollande.

Prosecutors say accountants had warned Sarkozy that the campaign was set to blow past the 22.5 million euro ($26.7 million) spending cap, but that he insisted on holding more events.

Eventually the campaign spent nearly 43 million euros, though Sarkozy says he was unaware of the scheme — unlike some of the defendants he is not charged with fraud, but with the lesser offence of illegal campaign financing.

READ ALSO: Ex French president Sarkozy, 66, denies claims he ‘skipped the queue’ to get his Covid vaccine

If convicted, he risks up to a year in prison and a fine of 3,750 euros.

The trial was originally set for March but was postponed after a lawyer for a key witness was hospitalised with Covid-19. It is now set to run until June 22.

It was not clear if Sarkozy would appear in court when the trial opens in Paris on Thursday afternoon, but he has been ordered to appear for questioning the week of June 14.

‘Runaway train’

The case is one of several to have dogged Sarkozy since he left office and which have torpedoed hopes among his allies that he could muster a comeback and challenge Emmanuel Macron for the presidency next year.

He has denied any wrongdoing, saying he is the victim of a vindictive judicial system that widely opposed his reform efforts while in power from 2007 to 2012.

He has appealed the corruption conviction, handed down after a judge ruled he plotted with his former lawyer and friend Thierry Herzog to obtain and share confidential information from a judge an inquiry into Sarkozy’s 2007 campaign financing.

READ ALSO: Sarkozy to appeal conviction for corruption after being handed jail term

The latest case is known as the Bygmalion affair, after the name of the public relations firm hired to orchestrate a blitz of elaborately staged rallies when polls showed that Sarkozy’s 2012 re-election was far from assured.

Bygmalion executives have acknowledged a system of fake invoices to pass the bills to Sarkozy’s UMP party, since renamed Les Républicains, including the deputy manager of the campaign, Jerome Lavrilleux.

Lavrilleux made headlines in 2014 after he tearfully confessed to the scam during a French TV interview, saying: “This campaign was a runaway train that no one had the courage to stop.”

Campaign officials refused to reimburse the spending after investigators discovered the fraud, prompting the UMP to launch a “Sarkothon” that raised 11 million euros towards his costs.

Sarkozy, who married the singer and former model Carla Bruni while in office, is also facing charges that he received millions of euros from the former Libyan dictator Moamer Kadhafi for his 2007 election campaign.

And in January, prosecutors opened a probe into alleged influence-peddling involving his activities as a consultant in Russia.

Yet Sarkozy remains a popular figure on the right, attracting long lines of fans last summer seeking autographs of his latest memoir, “The Time of Storms,” which topped best-seller lists for weeks.

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FRENCH POLITICS

Pro-Macron MP becomes France’s first woman speaker

France's lower house of parliament has agreed to pick an MP from President Emmanuel Macron's centrist coalition as the first woman speaker, despite the ruling alliance losing its majority in legislative elections.

Pro-Macron MP becomes France's first woman speaker

Yael Braun-Pivet, who had been serving as the minister for overseas territories, is the first woman to ever hold the post of speaker in the history of the Assemblée nationale.

Despite the loss of its overall majority, Macron’s ruling alliance still managed to push through her appointment in the second round of voting.

Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne and other senior Macron backers have been trying to win over individual right-wing and moderate left parliamentarians to bolster their ranks.

Borne, appointed last month, is France’s second woman prime minister after the brief stint by Edith Cresson in the 1990s.

Olivier Marleix, head of the centre-right Les Républicains group seen as most compatible with Macron, met Borne on Tuesday. “We’ve told her again there is no question of any kind of coalition,” he said.

But he added that the prime minister “really showed that she wanted to listen to us. That’s quite a good sign.

“We’re here to try and find solutions,” he added. “There will be some draft laws where I think we should be able to work together,” including one to boost households’ purchasing power in the face of food and energy inflation.

“It’s not in the interest of parties who have just been elected” to make a long-term deal to support the government, said Marc Lazar, a professor at Paris’s Institute of Political Studies (Sciences Po).

Borne under pressure

One key question will be whether Thursday’s vote to head the finance committee – with its extensive powers to scrutinise government spending – will be won by an MP from the far-right Rassemblement National (RN).

Led by Macron’s defeated presidential opponent Marine Le Pen, the RN would usually have a claim on the post as the largest single opposition party.

It faces a stiff challenge from the NUPES left alliance – encompassing Greens, Communists, Socialists and the hard-left France Unbowed (LFI) – who agreed on Tuesday on a joint candidate after some internal jostling.

Next week could see exchanges heat up in the chamber, as government chief Borne delivers a speech setting out her policy priorities.

Macron told AFP at the weekend that he had “decided to confirm (his) confidence in Elisabeth Borne” and asked her to continue talks to find either allies for the government in parliament or at least backing for crucial confidence and budget votes.

The president has ruled out both tax increases and higher public borrowing in any compromise deals with other parties.

Even as the government projects business almost as usual, hard-left LFI especially has vowed to try to prevent key proposals, such as the flagship reform to raise the legal retirement age from 62 to 65.

Party deputy chief Adrien Quatennens said on Sunday there was “no possible agreement” with Macron, saying cooperation would “make no sense”.

“We haven’t heard (Macron) move or back down one iota on pension reform” or other controversial policies, he added.

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