How the legal troubles of a former French president could be a blueprint for Trump's

Donald Trump is reputed not to read much, and he certainly won’t want to read about the trial of Nicolas Sarkozy, the former right-wing French president. Sarkozy’s troubles after leaving office in 2012 hint at a blueprint for the outgoing U.S. president’s legal future. 

The political careers of Nicolas Sarkozy and Donald Trump have striking parallels. Do their legal futures?

Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy's troubles after leaving office in 2012 could be a blueprint for U.S. President Donald Trump's legal woes. (Thierry Chesnot/Getty Images, Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Donald Trump is reputed not to read much, and he certainly won't want to read about the trial of Nicolas Sarkozy, the former right-wing French president.

Sarkozy's troubles after leaving office in 2012 hint at a blueprint for the outgoing U.S. president's legal future.

Sarkozy is charged with corruption and influence-peddling after he left office. Like American presidents, French presidents have immunity while serving, in Sarkozy's case from 2007 to 2012.

The accusation is that in 2013, he promised a position in Monaco to a French judge in return for top-secret information about one of several legal investigations into his affairs before and after he became president.

Sarkozy denies it and points out that the judge never got a position in Monaco. He told an all-news station, BFMTV, in early November: "I'm not a hoodlum. I'm not rotten."

Striking parallels 

The parallels between Sarkozy and Trump are striking, and one of them is that their electorates found their in-their-face presidential styles tiring. They were both retired after one term.

In 2012, the French opted for a "normal" president. That was the term incoming president François Hollande used to describe himself. But the French quickly tired of "normality" and retired Hollande as well, after just one term.

Former French president Francois Hollande, left, and Sarkozy attend a ceremony to mark the end of the Second World War, in Paris on May 8. Hollande was the self-described 'normal' president after Sarkozy. (Charles Platiau/AFP via Getty Images)

Instead, once again they opted for an activist, interventionist leader: Emmanuel Macron. Like Sarkozy, he likes fights and likes to pick them, even with foreign leaders and the foreign press. More on him later.

Like Trump, Sarkozy has always loved the limelight. The French media call him a bête de scène, a political beast who craves public attention, whether good or bad. 

Like Trump, he was twice divorced and then remarried to a model, Carla Bruni, in his case while he was in office as president.

'Allegiance or vengeance'

In office, he was dubbed le président tous azimuts — the "all-out president," who dabbled in almost every policy.

He appointed loyalists to most top posts, and several got into trouble for ignoring the boundaries of the law. 

Like Trump, he demands loyalty. As one French éditorialiste wrote in Le Monde, with Sarkozy it was either "allegiance or vengeance."

Trump, pictured in July, has much in common with Sarkozy. (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

And now, as an ex-president, Sarkozy finds himself waist-deep in not one, but three, legal swamps.

The first swamp began in earnest on Thursday. It is the first time an ex-president has been in court facing a serious charge of influence peddling and corruption. If found guilty, he and his co-defendants face prison terms of up to 10 years.

Phone taps and fake names

And another first: Sarkozy is the first French ex-head of state to have his phones tapped. Trump, who falsely accused the Obama administration of tapping his campaign's phones, might be sympathetic.

The charge relates to moves by Sarkozy and his lawyer to persuade Gilbert Azibert, a judge on France's highest court of appeal, to give them a secret file relating to another police investigation into Sarkozy's dealings. In return, it's alleged that Sarkozy promised to use his influence to arrange a plum job for the judge in Monaco.

The case became spicier when investigating magistrates discovered that Sarkozy and his lawyer and co-defendant, Thierry Herzog, realized they were being investigated. They took evasive action, hiding their discussions by using new phones and fake names. Sarkozy became "Paul Bismuth."

Sarkozy arrives at a Paris courthouse earlier this week to attend his trial on charges of corruption and influence peddling. (Charles Platiau/Reuters)

That's when the order was given to tap their conversations.

France's National Financial Prosecutor's office in 2017 described the defendants' efforts as "a pact of corruption." 

"Their methods were those of experienced offenders," it said.

Harsh language, but equally harsh has been Sarkozy's response. In an interview with BFMTV in November, he talked of "Stasi methods," referring to the dreaded secret police in communist East Germany, and "a scandal that will sit long in the annals."

Only the first of his trials

Unfortunately for Sarkozy, this is only the first of his trials. In the spring of 2021, he and several colleagues will go on trial for the so-called Bygmalion affair. The charge is that his re-election campaign in 2012 used the Bygmalion public relations firm to launder receipts, thus filling the campaign coffers with millions more than campaign finance laws allowed.

The third possible trial involves tens of millions of dollars from, of all people, Moammar Gadhafi, the then-Libyan leader — money carried to France in suitcases to finance Sarkozy's winning presidential campaign in 2007.

Half a dozen of Sarkozy's circle have found themselves in serious legal trouble, and at least three have been convicted of crimes. But the ex-French president has been careful to leave few written traces, preferring fake names and new phones.

And, like Trump, he has used every legal avenue to drag out the process, all the while denouncing the legal establishment of France in virulent language.

Trump is a businessman, and far richer than Sarkozy, a lawyer and a politician almost all his adult life. But like Sarkozy, Trump already faces investigations on several fronts, which he has dragged out by appealing against every adverse judgment.

Enter Macron

Sarkozy's belligerence in office exhausted the French, but five years later they chose a new Lone Ranger of politics, who formed his own party and promised to rip up the old ways of doing things. 

There is not a hint of corruption about Emmanuel Macron, but his willingness to start fights, at home and abroad, is familiar. 

In the midst of the enormous COVID crisis, he lit a match that started a fire in the Muslim world. His speeches in October attacking "Islamist separatism," saying Islam is "in crisis" and defending France's right to protect caricaturists, including those who draw cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, drew the fury of Turkey's president and of the Pakistani government.

Turkey's Erdogan said, "Macron needs mental treatment." France promptly recalled its ambassador to Turkey. Then Macron accused Erdogan of having "imperial inclinations," a reference to Turkey's aggressive military presence in the Mediterranean and in supporting Azerbaijan in its war with Armenia.

The Pakistani minister for human rights accused France of treating French Muslims like Hitler treated the Jews before the Second World War. The French government exploded. "These despicable words are blatant lies, loaded with an ideology of hatred and violence," a Foreign Ministry spokesperson said.

Like Sarkozy, the current French president, Emmanuel Macron, likes to pick fights with foreign leaders and the foreign press. (Jean-Francois Badias/AFP via Getty Images)

Along the way, Macron has taken on French unions, stripping them of some rights and advantages, and French journalists. To the media's fury, his government recently introduced a law making it a crime to publish images of police officers "for malicious purposes." Journalists and others demonstrated in their thousands. The law passed.

Attack is the best defence; it is a line that Macron hews to with enthusiasm. 

This was the approach that worked brilliantly for Sarkozy and for Trump — until it didn't.


Don Murray

Eye on Europe

A well-travelled former CBC reporter and documentary maker, Don Murray is a freelance writer and translator based in London and Paris.