Carla Bruni caresses the brow of Nicolas Sarkozy during a campaign meeting in Marseille. File / AP
A French court found former president Nicolas Sarkozy guilty of trying to bribe a judge and influence peddling on Monday and sentenced him to three years in prison, a stunning fall from grace for a man who led France and strode the world stage for five years.
However, he may not spend any time in prison. Two years of the sentence were suspended, and the presiding judge said she would accept allowing him to be tagged with an electronic bracelet outside of prison for the remaining year.
An officer salutes as Nicolas Sarkozy (R) arrives at the Paris court to hear the final verdict in a corruption trial. AFP
Sarkozy, who was president from 2007 to 2012, is the second head of state in modern-day France to be convicted of corruption. Prosecutors persuaded the judges that after leaving office, Sarkozy had offered to secure a plum job in Monaco for a judge in return for inside information about an inquiry into allegations that he had accepted illegal payments from L'Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt for his 2007 presidential campaign.
"He took advantage of his status and the relationships he had made," presiding judge Christine Mee told the court.
Another judge will decide whether to permit Srakozy to wear a bracelet instead of being imprisoned.
Retired from politics but still influential among conservatives, Sarkozy has 10 days to appeal the ruling. He left the court without speaking.
Nicolas Sarkozy gestures as he delivers a speech during a meeting in Bordeaux. File / AP
He had denied any wrongdoing, saying he was the victim of a witch-hunt by financial prosecutors who used excessive means to snoop on his affairs.
Sarkozy burst onto the world stage as a reformer full of ideas who would break with France’s stagnant past on the domestic front and restore the birthplace of human rights to a place of prominence in international affairs.
In the flagship reform of his term, Sarkozy defied hundreds of thousands of strikers to raise the retirement age to 62 from 60. He earned himself the monikor of the Gallic Thatcher, undertaking market-driven reforms such as loosening the 35-hour work week and tweaking the tax system to encourage overtime.
Outside France, he brokered a ceasefire to the 2008 Russia-Georgia war, championed the 2011 military intervention in Libya and hosted high-profile G8 and G20 summits.
The only other president of the Fifth Republic to be convicted of by a court was Sarkozy's predecessor, the late Jacques Chirac, was found guilty of corruption in 2011.
Prosecutors stumbled across Sarkozy's attempts to obtain confidential information while they were wiretapping conversations he had with his lawyer Thierry Herzog after he left office.
Though he is not the first modern French head of state in the dock — his predecessor and political mentor Jacques Chirac was convicted of embezzlement -- Sarkozy is the first to face corruption charges.
Prosecutors allege that Sarkozy’s party, then known as the UMP, splurged nearly double the 22.5 million euros ($27 million) permitted under electoral law on extravagant campaign rallies, and then used a friendly public relations agency to hide the cost.
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