A Paris court has rejected a request to postpone the corruption trial of former French President Nicolas Sarkozy and two other defendants, ordering them to appear in person for hearings that will begin on Monday.
Sarkozy became France’s first modern head of state to appear in the dock this week, on suspicions he promised a plush job to a judge in exchange for inside information on a campaign finance inquiry.
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Lawyers for the judge, 73-year-old Gilbert Azibert, sought a postponement for medical reasons when the trial opened on Monday, saying he had health problems that made public appearances risky during the COVID-19 outbreak.
But, after a medical exam ordered by the court determined Azibert could indeed appear in court as long as strict social distancing measures were respected, the trial will resume on Monday.
“In any event and, unfortunately, no matter the risk, we will continue the proceedings starting Monday,” Azibert’s lawyer, Dominique Allegrini, told journalists after the hearing.
Sarkozy, wearing a black suit and tie, made no statement as he entered the courtroom.
Only one other French president, Sarkozy’s political mentor Jacques Chirac, has faced trial after leaving office – but because of ill health, Chirac never appeared in court for his conviction in a fake-jobs scandal.
Prosecutors said Sarkozy and his lawyer, Thierry Herzog, tried to bribe Azibert with a job in Monaco, if he would provide information on an inquiry into claims Sarkozy accepted illicit payments from L’Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt during his 2007 presidential campaign.
Wiretaps of conversations between Herzog and Sarkozy – who used a secret phone bought under the alias of “Paul Bismuth” – purportedly revealed the two men making plans to get Azibert’s help in swaying the inquiry.
Charged with bribery and influence peddling, Sarkozy has denied the accusations, denouncing this month “a scandal that will go down in history”.
Sarkozy, Azibert and Herzog face prison sentences of up to 10 years and a fine of one million euros ($1.2m). They have denied any wrongdoing.
Azibert’s lawyer, Dominique Allegrini, disagreed with Thursday’s decision but said, “What really matters now is seeing the debates continue in serene conditions so that we can, finally … present Gilbert Azibert’s defence and defend his honour after it was mistreated during the several years of the investigation.”
The real Paul Bismuth, a former schoolmate of Herzog’s who now lives in Israel, told AFP this week that he would not be a civil plaintiff in the case, as he had previously considered.
“I don’t see what I would get out of it,” he said.
Sarkozy was president from 2007 to 2012. He withdrew from active politics after failing to be chosen as his conservative party’s presidential candidate for France’s 2017 election, won by Emmanuel Macron.