Sarkozy: divisive French ex-president shadowed by legal woes

·4-min read
Nicolas Sarkozy suffered a new court setback on Wednesday
Nicolas Sarkozy suffered a new court setback on Wednesday

Nicolas Sarkozy, who ruled France as a tough-talking right-wing president from 2007 to 2012, is seen by supporters as a dynamic saviour but by detractors as a vulgar populist mired in corruption.

A criminal conviction for corruption and influence peddling confirmed at appeal Wednesday is -- like other long-running cases -- unlikely to send him to prison.

But it leaves the formerly omnipresent "hyper-president", who now regularly bends the ear of incumbent Emmanuel Macron, more than ever a behind-the-scenes political player far from the limelight where he once basked.

Sarkozy failed to win a second mandate in 2012 and then lost out on his party's nomination in 2017, subsequently drawing closer to Macron.

After the young president failed to secure a parliamentary majority last year, Sarkozy pushed for a coalition between Macron's supporters and his own party -- plans that ultimately came to nought for all the respect he enjoys on the right.

During his own five-year term, Sarkozy, now 68, took a hard line on immigration, security and national identity.

After winning the presidency at age 52, he was initially seen as injecting a much-needed dose of dynamism, making a splash on the international scene and wooing the corporate world.

But Sarkozy's presidency was overshadowed by the 2008 financial crisis, and he left office with the lowest popularity ratings of any postwar French leader up to then.

He pulled out all the stops in an ultimately doomed bid to defeat Socialist Francois Hollande for a second term in 2012 that has since earned him separate campaign finance probe investigations.

His latest conviction -- which his lawyers say they will appeal before France's top appeals court -- relates to his attempts to influence investigations into the funding of his 2007 victory.

- 'Special link' -

The 2012 defeat made Sarkozy the first president since Valery Giscard d'Estaing (1974-1981) to be denied a second term, prompting him to famously promise: "You won't hear about me anymore."

But that prediction turned out to be anything but true, with ongoing legal problems and his marriage to former supermodel Carla Bruni keeping Sarkozy in the spotlight.

Few were surprised when he returned to frontline politics, in 2014 winning the leadership of the conservative UMP party, since renamed The Republicans. But he failed to win the party's nomination for another crack at the presidency in 2017.

He has remained hugely popular on the right and lines of fans queued in the summer of 2020 to have him sign his memoir, "The Time of Storms", which topped best-seller lists for weeks.

"I have a special link with the French. It may stretch, it may tighten, but it exists," he said.

Key figures in Macron's centrist but increasingly right-leaning government, such as Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin, are former Sarkozy allies.

But Sarkozy will be tainted by a number of unwanted firsts: while former French president and his mentor Jacques Chirac was also convicted of graft, Sarkozy is the first French former head of state to be convicted twice and the first to be formally given jail terms.

- 'Get lost' -

Born on January 28, 1955, the football fanatic and cycling enthusiast is an atypical French politician.

The son of a Hungarian immigrant father, Sarkozy has a law degree but unlike most of his peers did not attend the exclusive Ecole Nationale d'Administration, the well-worn production line for future French leaders.

Sarkozy has a pugnacious style seen as an asset by admirers but a liability by detractors who fault his apparent lack of self-control.

Few have forgotten his visit to the 2008 agriculture show in Paris, when he said "get lost, dumbass" to a man who refused to shake his hand.

He still faces a sea of legal woes, and is set to appeal both Wednesday's verdict and a 2021 conviction for illegal financing of his 2012 campaign.

French prosecutors also demanded last week that he face a new trial over alleged Libyan financing of his 2007 election win.

Sarkozy is accused of corruption, illegal campaign financing and concealing the embezzlement of public funds but rejects all the charges.

"I've got used to enduring this harassment over the past 10 years," he said.