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Nicolas Sarkozy loses appeal to avoid trial over illegal French presidential campaign funding

Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy has lost a final legal appeal to avoid standing trial on charges of illegal financing for his 2012 election campaign.

The decision by France’s highest appeals court means the 64-year old conservative will almost certainly be tried over two separate affairs in the coming months.

Judges in June rejected his final appeal against going to trial for "active corruption" and seeking to influence a judge, charges which respectively carry maximum sentences of ten years in prison and a €150,000 fine and five years in prison and a €500,000 fine.

Now, France’s Court de Cassation has rejected his appeal against standing trial on charges of spending nearly double the legal limit of €22.5 million euros (£20m) on his failed 2012 re-election bid.

Prosecutors claim Mr Sarkozy spent nearly €43 million on his doomed presidential race, which he lost to Socialist François Hollande.

Investigating magistrates contend that Mr Sarkozy’s campaign used fake invoices to circumvent France’s strict electoral spending limits via a PR firm called Bygmalion. To keep official spending below the legal ceiling, Bygmalion invoiced the ex-president’s party, then called UMP, rather than the campaign, they assert.

Judges have produced no direct evidence of Mr Sarkozy’s involvement or knowledge of the system but said they considered it unlikely he had been kept in the dark about such massive overspending.

They point to a text message in which the campaign team warn "we have no more money" and that the UMP party leader had "spoken about it with the PR (president)".

Mr Sarkozy will be the first French leader to stand trial since the late Jacques Chirac, who died last week and was convicted of misusing public funds and given a suspended jail term in 2011. 

The illegal campaign spending charges are punishable by a maximum year in prison and a fine of €3,750. Thirteen other people, including a number of Bygmalion executives, have also been charged in the case.

All deny wrongdoing.

Mr Sarkozy is also under official investigation in a separate party funding case over whether he had secretly received 50 million (£44m) from the late Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi to fund his successful 2007 presidential campaign.

French judges believe illegal kickbacks from the sale of submarines to Pakistan helped fund Edouard Balladur's failed 1995 presidential bidCredit:
ERIC FEFERBERG/ AFP

In an intense day for political corruption cases in France, prosecutors have also announced that former French prime minister Edouard Balladur is to stand trial at a special court over charges that kickbacks from the sale of submarines to Pakistan helped finance his 1995 presidential election campaign.

That trial comes over years of investigations into the "Karachi Affair", a series of nebulous dealings by middlemen involving possible "retro-commissions" linked to the sale of Agosta class submarines by the French government to Pakistan in the 1990s.

The investigation was launched after 11 French submarine engineers were murdered in Karachi in a 2002 bomb attack on the bus transporting them. It was initially blamed on al-Qaeda terrorists, but investigating judges also looked into whether the blast was to punish France for failing to pay part of €80 million (£71m) in sweeteners to senior Pakistani officials.

When Jacques Chirac beat Mr Balladur, now 90, to become French president in 1995, it is alleged that he punished his one-time ally for running against him by halting the remaining payments to Pakistani middlemen. 

Mr Sarkozy, who was budget minister and spokesman for Mr Balladur’s presidential campaign at the time, has previously angrily rejected media speculation that he might have known of the payments as “grotesque".

The investigation looked into potential links between alleged kickbacks and the murder of 11 French submarine engineers in KarachiCredit:
AAMIR QURESHI/AFP

Mr Balladur will stand trial before the Court of Justice of the Republic, set up to try cases of current and former ministers. He and his former defence minister, François Léotard, face charges of “complicity in the abuse of public funds” and concealing this alleged crime. They had been under official investigation since 2017.

In all, investigating magistrates believe that Mr Balladur received 13 million francs (around £1.8m) for the sale of submarines to Pakistan but also frigates to Saudi Arabia. Mr Léotard is notably accused of setting up an “opaque circuit” of arms dealers linked to both countries.

François Léotard, the former defence minister, is also accusedCredit:
 YVES LOGGHE/AP

Mr Balladur is accused of receiving some 10 million francs of the kickbacks "in cash", said François Molins, the prosecutor general, in a statement.

Both defendants deny any wrongdoing.

François Martineau et Félix de Belloy, Mr Balladur’s lawyer, said his client was “confident in the outcome of this trial in that he never committed any of the acts held against him”. 

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