A growing tradition: Why convicted politicians in France never go to jail

Nicolas Sarkozy is just the latest politician to avoid spending time behind bars

Peter Allen
In Paris
Thursday 30 September 2021 17:14
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<p>Still free: the former French president Nicolas Sarkozy campaigning during the 2012 presidential election</p>

Still free: the former French president Nicolas Sarkozy campaigning during the 2012 presidential election

As he contemplates his second custodial sentence this year and awaits further criminal trials, it is all but certain that Nicolas Sarkozy will not spend a single night in a cell.

This fits in with the convention that high-ranking French politicians never actually go to prison, no matter what their crimes.

Judge Caroline Viguier on Thursday made clear that Sarkozy could serve a year for illegal campaign financing at home with an electronic bracelet.

This is despite Sarkozy also being a former interior minister – the French equivalent of home secretary – who was known for his reactionary views about locking up convicted criminals.

When he initially became one himself on 1 March, Sarkozy was also the first ever former president in the history of France to be sentenced to jail time for crimes committed while in office.

His conviction for “corruption and influence peddling” in connection with bribing a judge earned him a year in a cell, with two suspended.

But he immediately appealed – meaning the entire punishment was suspended until another hearing on a date to be fixed. He has also appealed against Thursday’s illegal financing conviction.

The French criminal justice system is notoriously slow, and he it could be many months, if not years, before the appeals are finally heard.

In June last year, Sarkozy’s former prime minister, François Fillon, and his British wife, Penelope Fillon, were given prison sentences after being found guilty of fraud, but both are still at liberty.

Judges sitting at the Paris Correctional Court ruled that the couple had created fake jobs that paid Ms Fillon the equivalent of close to £1m in public funds.

Fillon was given a five-year sentence, with three years suspended, but remains free while appealing. His wife received a three-year suspended sentence.

In 2011, Sarkozy’s one-time political mentor and predecessor as president, the late Jacques Chirac, was convicted of embezzlement and misusing public funds.

He was tried in absentia, however, because of his alleged poor health at the time.

Chirac’s crimes related to his time as Paris mayor, and he was given a two-year suspended prison sentence, so also avoided a cell.

Beyond his appeals, Sarkozy will spend the coming months defending himself in a range of other cases.

Within a month of losing his presidential immunity from prosecution in 2012, the Paris home he shares with his third wife, the former supermodel Carla Bruni, was raided by the fraud squad.

Sarkozy has since been indicted on numerous allegations, including that he accepted millions in illegal funding from the late Libyan dictator Colonel Muammar Gaddafi.

Sarkozy has denied any wrongdoing in all of the cases, and his lawyers have indicated that he will continue appealing all judgments against him.

The last French head of state to see the inside of a cell was Marshal Philippe Pétain, the wartime Nazi collaborator.

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