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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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POLITICS

Revealed: France’s funniest politicians and their best ‘jokes’

Politicians' jokes are more usually met with a groan than a laugh, but France's annual prize for political humour has been awarded - here are the zingers judged the best in 2022.

Revealed: France's funniest politicians and their best 'jokes'

According to the jury on the Press club, Humour et Politique awards, the funniest politician in France is the Communist leader (and 2022 presidential candidate) Fabien Roussel.

His award-winning zinger is: “La station d’essence est le seul endroit en France où celui qui tient le pistolet est aussi celui qui se fait braquer.”

It translates as ‘the petrol station is the only place where the one holding the gun is also the one who is robbed’ – a joke that works much better in French where ‘pistolet’ means both a pistol and the petrol pump. 

On a side note for British readers – Roussel also looks quite a lot like left-wing UK comedian Stewart Lee, so maybe he has funny genes.

Second prize went to ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy with his withering assessment of Valérie Pécresse, the candidate for his old party in the 2022 presidential election, who did extremely badly.

“Ce n’est pas parce que tu achètes de la peinture, une toile et des pinceaux que tu deviens Picasso. Valérie Pécresse, elle a pris mes idées, mon programme et elle a fait 4.8 pourcent”

“It’s not because one buys paints, canvas and brushes that you become Picasso. Valérie Pécresse, she took my ideas, my manifesto and she got 4.8 percent of the vote.”

While these two were jokes – in the loosest sense of the word – the prize can also be awarded to politicians who make people laugh inadvertently, such as last year’s winner Marlène Schiappa who, when announcing plans to ban polygamy, felt the need to tell the French, “On ne va pas s’interdire les plans à trois” – we’re not going to outlaw threesomes.

Here’s the full list of finalists for the funniest political joke of 2022 – somehow we don’t think you’re at risk of split sides with any of these.

Ex-Prime minister Edouard Philippe talking about hard-left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon: “Il faut une certaine audace pour que quelqu’un qui a été battu à une élection où il était candidat puisse penser qu’il sera élu à une élection où il n’est pas candidat!”

“It takes a certain audacity for someone who was defeated in an election where he was a candidate to think that he will be elected in an election where he is not a candidate!”

Ex-Assemblée nationale president Richard Ferrand: “Elisabeth Borne est formidable mais personne ne le sait.”

“Elisabeth Borne is great but no-one knows it.”

Ex-Macronist MP Thierry Solère: “Mon anatomie fait que si j’ai le cul entre deux chaises, je suis parfaitement assis.”

“My anatomy means that if I have my ass between two chairs, I am perfectly seated.”

Some information that might be useful for this one – the French phrase avoir le cul entre deux chaises (to have your ass between two chairs) is the equivalent of the English ‘falling between two stools’ – ie a person who cannot make up their mind what or who to support. Further information; Solère is a largish bloke.

Hard-left MP Eric Coquerel: “S’imaginer qu’on va remplacer Jean-Luc Mélenchon comme ça, c’est une vue de l’esprit. C’est comme se poser la question de qui va remplacer Jaurès.”

“To imagine that we will replace [party leader] Jean-Luc Mélenchon like that, is purely theoretical. It is like asking the question of who will replace Jaurès.”

Jean Jaurès is a revered figure on the French left, but not currently very active in politics, since he was assassinated in 1914.

Rachida Dati to Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo: “Votre présence au Conseil de Paris est aussi anecdotique que votre score à la présidentielle.”

“Your presence at the Council of Paris is as anecdotal as your score in the presidential election.”

There’s no doubt that Hidalgo did humiliatingly badly in the presidential election with a score of 1.75 percent. Daiti didn’t stand in the presidential elections but she did put herself forward to be mayor of Paris in 2020 and was convincingly beaten by . . . Anne Hidalgo.

So that’s the ‘jokes’, but there were also some entries for inadvertently funny moments.

Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo: “Tous les matins, je me lève en me disant que tout le monde m’aime.”

“Every morning, I wake up and tell myself that everyone loves me.”

But the undisputed queen of this genre is the green MP Sandrine Rousseau, whose ideas and policy announcements seem to have provoked a great deal of mirth.

Je voudrais qu’il y ait une possibilité de délit de non-partage des tâches domestiques – I would like there to be the possibility of a crime of not equally sharing domestic tasks

Les SDF meurent plus de chaleur l’été que l’hiver – The homeless die from heat more in the summer than the winter

Il faut changer aussi de mentalité pour que manger une entrecôte cuite sur un barbecue ne soit plus un symbole de virilité – We must also change our mentality so that eating a steak cooked on a barbecue is no longer a symbol of virility.

If you prefer your humour a little more scientific, Phd researcher Théo Delemazure has done a study of which politicians and political parties are funniest when speaking in parliament.

He analysed how often speeches raise a smile or a laugh (which presumably includes sarcastic laughter) and concluded that the party that gets the most laughs is the hard-left La France Insoumise.

They are also the party that speaks most often, however, when he calculated the laughter rate per time spent speaking, the prize went to the centre-right Les Républicains.

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