Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy on Tuesday angrily denied accusations he was aware of massive campaign overspending on his failed 2012 re-election bid in his second trial in weeks.
The timing of his first appearance in the trial, which began last month, was unfortunate just five days before regional elections in which his rudderless Republicans party is fighting for its survival.
The 66-year old conservative stands accused of spending almost twice the maximum legal amount of €22.5 million in his campaign for a second five-year presidential term leading to his defeat by Socialist Francois Hollande.
Investigative magistrates concluded that Mr Sarkozy and his team knowingly decided to hold "spectacular and expensive rallies" in 2012 in a desperate attempt to overtake his rival in the final furlong. The campaign’s total cost allegedly reached at least €42.8 million.
He faces up to one year in prison and a fine of €3,750 (£3,230) if found guilty.
Sarkozy has already become the first ex-president to be sentenced to a prison term in modern French history
The Paris court is seeking to determine whether he was aware of the alleged system of false invoices that passed through an events company called Bygmalion in a double-billing system prosecutors say was designed to cover up the overspending.
Standing in a dark suit in the dock, Mr Sarkozy insisted that he had at that time “never even heard of Bygmalion” and had "never" given any direct instruction to rally organisers.
Claiming his campaign was run on similar lines to his previous one, which had not been questioned by electoral authorities, he said: ”I’d like someone to explain to me how my campaign was bigger in 2012 than in 2007? That’s not true. And if someone knows it, that’s me!”
Denying any wrongdoing, he told the court: ”You have in front of you someone whose life has been dedicated to politics for 40 years.”
The trial comes as France's mainstream Right is fighting for its survival
Credit: PASCAL ROSSIGNOL/Reuters
Bygmalion and 12 other defendants face charges including forgery, breach of trust, fraud and complicity in illegal campaign financing.
The investigation did not establish whether Mr Sarkozy took an active part in the alleged process or ordered fraudulent actions himself.
However, in their indictment, the magistrates said that far from being “disconnected”, Mr Sarkozy had ordered his camp to up the rallies to one per day in a campaign of “rare intensity” and “total improvisation” on the part of decision-makers.
They also said that he had “undeniably” benefited from the alleged fraud and his team had sought to “purge” the campaign account to avoid sanctions.
Jean-François Copé, former head of the UMP party that preceded the Republicans, a Sarkozy rival and witness, told them: “One should always ask who benefits from this.”
The trial, which runs until June 22, comes just weeks after Mr Sarkozy became the first ex-French president in modern history to be sentenced to a prison term – three years, two suspended – for seeking to bribe a judge. He has appealed the ruling.
Since his 2012 defeat, his party has lurched from one crisis to another, including a damaging leadership feud and the disgrace of its last presidential candidate, François Fillon, convicted over a fake job scandal involving his British wife, Penelope. He has appealed.
Emmanuel Macron successfully poached several centre-Right heavyweights after his 2017 presidential election and the Right rump of the Republicans now faces more defections to far-Right leader Marine Le Pen’s National Rally in regional elections on Sunday. In particular, it could lose control of the southern Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region to the Le Pen camp, led by a former Sarkozy minister who jumped ship.
Despite his legal woes, Mr Sarkozy remains a popular figure on the Right, releasing memoirs that became bestsellers and continuing to wield influence in his camp from behind the scenes.