The trial of French former President Nicolas Sarkozy on charges that his unsuccessful reelection bid in 2012 was illegally financed has been postponed for two months.
A Paris court formally started examining the new case on Wednesday, two weeks after he was convicted of corruption and influence peddling in another case, a decision he has appealed.
However, the trial was suspended and postponed until May 20 because one of the defense lawyers has been hospitalized with COVID-19.
The 66-year-old Sarkozy, who was president from 2007 to 2012, is facing allegations that he spent almost twice the maximum authorized amount of 22.5 million euros ($26.8 million) in his 2012 reelection bid, which he lost to Socialist Francois Hollande.
If found guilty, he faces up to one year in prison and a fine of 3,750 euros ($4,470). He denied wrongdoing. He did not attend the first day of the trial.
According to the judicial investigation, Sarkozy “indisputably benefited from fraud that allowed him to have, during his 2012 campaign, resources much superior to what the law authorized.”
Since 1990 and following several scandals, French law has provided for a number of rules strictly limiting campaign expenses.
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The investigative magistrate concluded that Sarkozy and his close entourage decided to hold “spectacular and expensive rallies.” The campaign’s total cost reached at least 42.8 million euros ($51 million).
Yet the investigation didn't establish whether Sarkozy had himself ordered the fraud or if he was a participant in trying to cover up the overspending, which included forging invoices.
In addition to Sarkozy, 12 other people and the company in charge of organizing the rallies are facing trial on charges including forgery, breach of trust, fraud and complicity in illegal campaign financing.
Some during the investigation admitted their wrongdoing.
In 2014, Jerome Lavrilleux, the former deputy campaign director, revealed on national television a system of fake invoices that allegedly allowed the conservative party, then named UMP, to pay for the campaign rallies.
The scandal had prompted a destructive war between leaders of the conservative party who have blamed each other.
Sarkozy has denied that the alleged illegal money ever financed his campaign. Speaking to investigative magistrates, he asked: “Where is the money?” suggesting that some in his own party could have misused it.
Sarkozy retired from active politics in 2017, but still has a lot of influence within the conservative party, which has been renamed The Republicans. French media also report that he maintains regular contacts with centrist President Emmanuel Macron, whom he is said to be advising.
Two weeks ago, Sarkozy was convicted of corruption and influence peddling and sentenced to one year in prison and a two-year suspended sentence. Sarkozy denied wrongdoing and appealed the verdict, which he called “a deep injustice.”