Bygmalion, Libya, Bismuth: the trials and tribulations of Nicolas Sarkozy

By David Coffey with RFI
Libya  AP  Thibault Camus
SEP 17, 2023 LISTEN
© AP / Thibault Camus

Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy has been hitting the headlines as he promotes his latest memoir. But storm clouds are gathering on the horizon as cases regarding campaign overspending, alleged financing from Libya and a wiretapping scandal reach the courts. RFI takes a look at the pugnacious politician's legal battles. 

Sarkozy, who is currently promoting his latest book "Le temps des combats" ("A time to fight"), will go on trial in November on appeal in the so-called Bygmalion case, involving dodgy campaign receipts.

Then in early 2025 the former president will face prosecutors on suspicions that late Libyan dictator Moamer Kadhafi helped finance his 2007 presidential campaign.

He is also appealing a conviction for corruption and influence-peddling in connection with secret phone conversations and alleged attempts to sway a judge.

Earlier this month, Sarkozy denounced what he described as "all-out harassment" on French television.

"I'm fighting, I'm not giving up," said the 68-year-old former president.

The Bygmalion case

The Bygmalion case was brought to court over Sarkozy's conservative UMP party splurging nearly double the €20 million permitted under electoral law on lavish re-election campaign rallies in 2012. 

"Basically where there is a cap on which the political campaigns, they have to obey that cap and if you exceed it, you're in the wrong," says Brigitte Adès, senior journalist at foreign affairs journal Politique Internationale.

"Because they didn't want to go over the cap, they actually created some bills [receipts] with this Bygmalion, which was a kind of company that was supposed to be paid by the UMP," she explains.

The president of the UMP at the time, Jean-François Copé, knew the owners of the company, Adès says, and having them pay bills provided "a way to extend or increase the money to finance the campaign".

No one is alleging that Sarkozy claimed the €20 million for himself, she stresses: "It's not him who took it and put it in his pocket." 

According to the political commentator, candidates running for high office are often so busy that they don't worry about where the money comes from. "It's a big mistake, of course. They should be very, very thorough," Adès says. 

"But it has always been the case that they've done that to be able to spend a bit more."

The Libya connection

Bygmalion aside, Sarkozy could also soon be put under investigation in another case: he is suspected of conspiring to take cash from Libya's Kadhafi to illegally fund his victorious 2007 bid for the presidency.

Sarkozy has been vehement in his defence. "I am ... accused of illegal financing by Kadhafi without them being able to say how much after ten years of investigation," he told French TV recently.

"How much did Gaddafi finance? 100,000, 2 million, 10 million?"

So where do the allegations of Sarkozy taking money from Kadhafi come from?

The investigation was opened in 2013 after a Franco-Lebanese businessman alleged he was involved in transferring funds from a Kadhafi associate to Sarkozy's campaign manager.

Prosecutors have claimed that Sarkozy asked the Libyan strongman for money – "but I don't think that it has actually been the case that he received anything because they haven't been able to prove that there was any money that was sent or received", notes Adès. 

Some allege Sarkozy received €50 million, others say €10 million. "We don't know and nothing has happened," Adès says. 

"The fact is that even if he requested it ... he shouldn't request money from a foreign leader. But I can tell you that I know a lot of presidents that have done that in the past," the commentator told RFI.

It remains unclear how Kadhafi would have stood to benefit by supporting Sarkozy's election campaign. 

The Bismuth affair

Sarkozy was sentenced on appeal to three years in prison, two suspended, for the wiretapping case – also known as the Bismuth affair.

It concerns a secret telephone line that was discovered when investigators tapped Sarkozy's two official phone lines, taken out in 2014 under the name Paul Bismuth.

Prosecutors accused Sarkozy of using the unofficial line to communicate with his lawyer about a legal investigation, which they were also surreptitiously discussing with a judge.

Taped conversations revealed that Sarkozy hinted that a certain magistrate could be set up with a good position in Monaco in return for "being amenable", which the court concluded was "active corruption of a magistrate" and "active influence peddling involving a person holding public authority". 

Sarkozy has appealed the conviction to the French Supreme Court and the former president, who is himself a lawyer, is ready for a fight. 

"I'll go all the way, to the European Court of Human Rights," he said.

Adès believes the Bismuth affair has been overblown.

"In a way Sarkozy was saying, 'what if we did that for that man because he might be able to be amenable...' That was the wrong thing to say. But it never added up anyway because nothing happened. He [the magistrate] never got the job. Nothing happened," she says.

'Attack the accuser'

Amid Sarkozy's strenuous denials and claims of persecution at the hands of the French judicial system, prosecutors have hit back.

"We know that the main strategy is to attack the accuser," France's national financial prosecutor Jean-François Bohnert said this week, declaring that his office would not be intimidated.

Whatever the eventual verdict, Sarkozy knows how to use the limelight to publicise his book. But there are serious issues at stake.

Former French Prime Minister François Fillon was sentenced to four years in prison, three of them suspended, for creating a ghost job and payroll in his office for his wife.

Penelope Fillon received a suspended sentence of two years in prison, while the couple were also handed a fine of €375,000.

Should Sarkozy be afraid of meeting a similar fate? 

"I don't think Sarkozy is scared of much," Adès insists.

Not much is likely to phase the grizzled politician, who knows the playbook when it comes to the French legal system.