Nicolas Sarkozy, 66, President of France from 2007 to 2012, currently a valued member of Emmanuel Macron’s informal council of advisors, was today sentenced to a year in prison for bribery and corruption in a case with roots in his murky relationship with the late Muammar Gaddafi, the not much missed brotherly leader of Libya.
This scandal is a tangled web, even by French standards. For those who have spent years attempting to get to the bottom of it, it offers the tantalising prospect that Sarkozy could become the first former French President ever to be thrown in the Paris prison called La Santé – although it doesn’t have a reputation for being good for the health. Sarkozy already holds the dubious honour of being the first former President held in police custody, in 2014 for his attempt to corrupt a judge, part of the case that’s now led to his prison sentence. That judge was also convicted today.
Corruption is a default condition of French politics and beyond the cognoscenti doesn’t attract enormous public attention. Sarkozy is hardly the first former president to be convicted of being a crook. Jacques Chirac, convicted of embezzlement as mayor of Paris in 2011 was given a two-year sentence but it was suspended and he never served a day. The nation recently mourned his death with nary a mention of his criminality.
Sarkozy is quite the habitué of police custody, however. He was arrested again in 2018 in a tributary investigation of the Libyan affair, this time to answer questions about a series of shadowy transactions involving the sale of Airbus airliners and Dassault combat aircraft which may have strangely coincided with alleged payments of €50 million from Libya to Sarkozy’s election campaign. These allegations are still being investigated by police.
There’s much more to this story, involving covert wiretapping, strange payments from Russia, the incomprehensible Bygmalion scandal, and the Bettencourt affair involving allegations of illegal payments made by billionaire heiress Liliane Bettencourt to persons associated with Sarkozy, who was in this case cleared of wrongdoing. Unfortunately, the French criminal justice system is extraordinarily slow-moving, often inept and as the instant case demonstrates, not immune to corruption itself.
In the United States, VIP prisoners hire consultants to prepare them for their sentences, teaching jail house etiquette and other essential skills. Privileged convicts are housed in one of several Club Fed jails offering computer classes and yoga. Desperate Housewives star Felicity Huffman, embroiled in a college admissions scandal, was at the Federal Correctional Institute, Dublin, near San Francisco, which makes it on Forbes magazine’s list of America's ten cushiest prisons.
The French penitential estate has more limited facilities, no consultants that I know of, but then relatively few VIPs ever get locked up. Their sentences tend to get commuted or turned into an obligation to wear a tag or to perform public service. Sarkozy will appeal his sentence, so we’ll see how he fares.
La Santé is indeed equipped with a VIP ‘special area’ whose previous occupants have included Carlos the Jackal and Jean Genet. But the facilities are said still to be rather primitive. I doubt I’m risking much to bet Sarkozy will not spend one night there.