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Nicolas Sarkozy and Edouard Balladur face campaign finance trials

French politics

Nicolas Sarkozy and Edouard Balladur face campaign finance trials

Former French president and prime minister accused of illegal use of funds

Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy, left, and ex-prime minister Edouard Balladur at an electoral meeting in 2002. Both men face separate trials over campaign financing allegations © Reuters

Nicolas Sarkozy and Edouard Balladur, a former French president and prime minister respectively, are to face separate trials for alleged illegal use of funds in presidential election campaigns.

Mr Balladur, former prime minister, will face trial for allegedly diverting commissions on arms sales to Pakistan and Saudi Arabia to his failed 1995 presidential election campaign, a court commission ruled on Tuesday.

Mr Balladur, who served under the then president François Mitterrand, is the latest in a long list of French postwar politicians to be embroiled in accusations of corruption or financial scandal. François Léotard, defence minister under Mr Balladur, will also face trial in the case.

A second court, meanwhile, confirmed that Nicolas Sarkozy would face trial in a separate campaign finance case for allegedly overspending by more than €20m in his 2012 run for the presidency.

Mr Balladur is accused of complicity in the misuse of funds from defence groups DCN-I and Sofresa for ordering his government to guarantee lossmaking or inadequate contracts and using commissions on weapons sales to the tune of Ffr10.25m (about €1.5m) to finance his campaign.

Mr Léotard faces the same charge for having allegedly set up “opaque circuits” for managing the commission money.

Charges of embezzlement of public money were dropped by the court.

French judges have spent a decade examining the possible misuse of the alleged kickbacks from the sale of French submarines to Pakistan and frigates to Saudi Arabia in the 1990s.

François Martineau, Mr Balladur’s lawyer, criticised “a decade of grave and defamatory accusations” and said his client was confident about the outcome of the trial “because he never committed the acts of which he is accused”.

Mr Léotard, who has previously denied wrongdoing, could not immediately be reached for comment.

The two men are to be tried in the Cour de Justice de la République, a special court set up to try sitting and former members of government.

The court previously found Christine Lagarde, the incoming chief of the European Central Bank, guilty of negligence in public office in 2016 over a €403m payout the French state made to entrepreneur Bernard Tapie when she served as finance minister.

The allegations of kickbacks circling around Mr Balladur came to light after a 2002 bombing in the Pakistani port of Karachi that killed 11 French naval engineers. The attack on the employees of DCN-I was originally presumed to be the work of al-Qaeda.

However, investigators began examining whether the attack had any links to commissions paid for the sale of the three Agosta-class submarines by France to Pakistan.

Investigating judges said they suspected the bombings were an act of revenge by elements within the Pakistani security forces for the termination of secret commissions after Jacques Chirac, the former president who died last week, beat Mr Balladur in the election and cancelled the payments. Pakistan’s embassy declined to comment at the time.

The commissions were being paid by the then state-owned shipbuilder DCN-I — now known as Naval Group — to intermediaries in a 1994 deal negotiated by the government in Paris.

Paying commissions to agents was legal, tax deductible and widespread until 2000, when Paris signed up to a ban by the OECD.

Chirac, who was buried on Monday after a military ceremony in his honour, was himself convicted and given a two-year suspended jail sentence in 2011 for embezzlement when he was mayor of Paris, with money from rigged contracts and fictitious employees used to further his political career and help his party.

Tuesday’s decision to reject Mr Sarkozy’s attempt to avoid a trial over illegal campaign finance allegations came from the Cour de Cassation, the country’s highest court.

The former president’s lawyer said that judges had previously accused him only of minor overspending beyond the officially allowed limit: “The only thing he is accused of is exceeding the [campaign finance] limit by €360,000.”

However, he acknowledged that Mr Sarkozy faced the possibility of a maximum sentence of a year in jail and a fine of €3,750.

Mr Sarkozy also faces a separate trial for influence-peddling after allegedly attempting to bribe a judge in a different investigation.

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