Sarkoscandals: A guide to the former French President’s alleged crimes

Phone-tapping by judges has led to serious charges against Nicolas Sarkozy - and much shouting

Paris

The French have a word for it: zizanie – a time when everyone screams abuse at everyone else.

A giant, passionate and unpredictable zizanie raged in France today on the subject of politics, lies and audio tapes. This followed the revelation last Friday that two independent magistrates had bugged several telephones belonging to Nicolas Sarkozy, the former President.

As a result of comments that he allegedly made during his bugged phone calls, Mr Sarkozy faces possible accusations of “influence peddling”. A half-dozen other criminal investigations are already examining the activities of the former President or his close associates before and during his term of office.

His supporters accuse the centre-left government of a “near-Soviet” persecution. The Justice Minister, Christiane Taubira – a favourite enemy of the right – is under pressure to resign.

She said earlier this week that she knew nothing of the bugging of Mr Sarkozy by two independent, investigating magistrates. Today she said that she had been informed that Mr Sarkozy faced a possible prosecution. She denied that she knew what the bugging revealed.

She held up two official letters dated 26 February as she spoke. Photographed by journalists, they showed that Ms Taubira had indeed been informed of the broad outline of the President’s bugged conversations. 

What are the rights and wrongs of all this? The Independent tries to unravel the riddle of the Sarkotapes.

What was Nicolas Sarkozy accused of before?

Several teams of investigating magistrates have been looking into accusations of alleged financial wrong-doing or favouritism by Mr Sarkozy or his associates before and during his period in the Elysée Palace from 2007 to 2012.

They range from a feebly-based accusation that he took millions of euros from the late Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi to suggestions that Mr Sarkozy and close associates engineered an unjustified €400m state compensation payment to the disgraced tycoon Bernard Tapie.

There are also investigations into the alleged illegal financing of a political meeting with state funds and the award of bloated opinion polling contracts to a Sarkozy political adviser, Patrick Buisson. This is the same man who, it was alleged last week, had secretly recorded the President’s private conversations in the Elysee Palace.

And now?

As a result of the judicial phone taps, the former President faces a possible new accusation. According to the investigative newspaper, Le Canard Enchainé, the judges recorded conversations in which Mr Sarkozy promised to engineer a gilded, near-retirement job in Monaco for a senior judge in France’s highest appeal court, the Cour de Cassation. In return, according to these alleged conversations, the judge, Gilber Azibert, provided inside information and influence on a key decision that the appeal court was due to make about the other investigations against Mr Sarkozy.

The Cour de Cassation made that key ruling on Tuesday – and it went against the former President. The judges decided that his presidential diaries, seized as part of another investigation, now dropped, could be shared by no less than 10 different investigating magistrates probing alleged Sarkoscandals.

Did Mr Sarkozy know that he was being bugged?

Yes and no. At one point, according to the French press, he became so uncharacteristically terse and vague on the phone that the judges decided he must know that he was under surveillance. Police investigations revealed that he had obtained another mobile telephone under an assumed name. The judges bugged that too. It was this phone which allegedly yielded the damaging evidence of an attempt to influence the appeal court.

Today it emerged that Mr Sarkozy faced another possible legal action by a man called Paul Bismuth, who lives in Israel. Who is he? According to the French press, Mr Sarkozy illegally “borrowed” Mr Bismuth’s name for his “secret” phone. He is considering suing the ex-President for “usurpation of identity”.

What is the French government accused of doing?

Mr Sarkozy’s supporters and his lawyer – Thierry Herzog, who was also bugged – accuse François Hollande’s administration of “Stasi” or “Soviet”-style “political eavesdropping”. They also accuse the government of secretly directing a judicial witch-hunt against Mr Sarkozy because they fear that he will run again in 2017.

Is there a witch-hunt?

Most of the investigations began before Mr Sarkozy left office or were frozen because of his presidential immunity. The magistrates pursuing the investigations are, under French law, independent of all government control.

But are they really  independent?

Most likely, yes. But there is a grey area. “Sensitive” investigations of this kind are usually revealed to the Justice Minister and other key government figures. Ms Taubira made the mistake earlier this week of denying all knowledge of the bugging of Mr Sarkozy. Her mis-statement, accidentally disproved by herself, was joyously seized upon by the pro-Sarko forces as “proof” that the government is lying.

Is it legal, or normal, in France to bug ex-Presidents?

No. This is the first time that it has ever happened. Under the French system, investigating judges have substantial, independent powers. But legal experts and politicians have been astonished that the judges went so far as to bug an ex-President.

How damaging is all this for Sarkozy?

Potentially very damaging. The other investigations against him had seemed to be floundering. Hence, perhaps, the extreme tactics adopted by the judges. If there is direct evidence, as reported, that Mr Sarkozy tried to interfere with the justice system and, in effect, “bribe” a senior judge for information and influence, his political career could be finished.

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