PARIS — The former French president Nicolas Sarkozy appeared in a Paris courtroom on Monday to face charges of corruption and influence-peddling, as years of drawn-out legal entanglements came to a head despite his enduring influence and popularity on the right.
Mr. Sarkozy, 65, who was president of France from 2007 to 2012, arrived at the main courthouse in Paris under tight security and without talking to a crowd of reporters gathered there. He is accused of trying to illegally obtain information on another legal case against him from a judge in return for promises to use his influence to secure a prestigious job for the judge.
Only one other president in recent French history has been put on trial: Jacques Chirac, who was convicted in 2011 for embezzling and misusing public funds when he was mayor of Paris. Mr. Chirac was the first French head of state to stand trial since Marshal Philippe Pétain was found guilty of treason at the end of World War II for collaborating with Nazi Germany.
Mr. Chirac, however, was tried in absentia because of his poor mental health.
Nicolas Roussellier, a political historian at Sciences Po in Paris who has studied the evolution of France’s executive branch, noted that it had been historically rare for heads of state to stand trial or even face charges in France because of an “old tradition” that sees the executive branch as a “sacred” office, separate from the turmoil of the political arena and shielded from a judge’s reach.
But the French have become increasingly impatient with the financial improprieties of their political elites, and journalists and prosecutors have become increasingly assertive in poking their noses where, several decades ago, none would have dared — including the presidency.
”Little by little, it is like a wall where cracks are slowly appearing,” said Mr. Roussellier, adding that even though the charges in Monday’s case were maybe not as serious as others pending against Mr. Sarkozy, his appearance in court was still highly “symbolic.”
The trial, initially scheduled to last until Dec. 10, could be postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic. Lawyers for Gilbert Azibert — the 73-year-old judge who stands accused of involvement in the corruption case alongside Mr. Sarkozy and his lawyer, Thierry Herzog — say he is too much at risk from the virus because of heart and respiratory issues to attend sessions in court.
After a short hearing, the court suspended the proceedings and deferred a ruling on a potential postponement until Thursday, when a medical report on Mr. Azibert is due.
Under French law, a person convicted of corruption can face up to 10 years in prison and a fine of 1 million euros, or about $1.2 million, while influence peddling can be punished by up to five years in prison and a €500,000 fine.
Mr. Sarkozy has been charged in that case, but leaks in the French news media indicate there is little concrete evidence so far of his direct involvement in the alleged financing scheme, and one of the key witnesses recently recanted some of his accusations against the former president.
“How long are we going to use taxpayer money to try and prove by all means possible that I am corrupt?” an angry Mr. Sarkozy said on the news channel BFM TV in an interview this month.
“The French must know, whether you like me or not — I have many flaws and probably made many mistakes — I am not a crook,” he added.
The case that started Monday, known as the “wiretapping affair,” is the first against him to finally reach trial, as Mr. Sarkozy — formerly a lawyer — has used every legal recourse available to him to draw out proceedings.
Although the cases are separate, the wiretapping affair emerged from the Libya inquiry, which began in 2013 and had led investigators to place wiretaps on phones belonging to Mr. Sarkozy and Mr. Herzog, his lawyer.
Through the wiretaps, prosecutors say, investigators discovered in 2014 that Mr. Sarkozy and Mr. Herzog were using secret phone lines and that the two had discussed ways of obtaining confidential information about another case involving the former president that was being handled by France’s top appeals court.
Prosecutors say Mr. Sarkozy sought to illegally obtain information from Mr. Azibert, then a magistrate at the court, including by promising to use his influence to secure a job for the judge in Monaco.
The job never materialized, but under French law, prosecutors do not have to prove that a corrupt deal was carried out to secure a conviction — only that one was agreed upon. Mr. Herzog, 65, and Mr. Azibert also deny any wrongdoing.
Paul-Albert Iweins, one of Mr. Herzog’s lawyers, said the wiretaps of the conversations between Mr. Sarkozy and Mr. Herzog were a violation of lawyer-client confidentiality and that the discussions between Mr. Herzog and Mr. Azibert were mere conversations between friends.
“All of this is little bits of sentences that were taken out of context,” Mr. Iweins told Franceinfo radio on Monday.
Mr. Sarkozy is scheduled to stand trial next year in another case involving his 2012 campaign in which he has been charged with exceeding strict limits on campaign spending. Other cases against Mr. Sarkozy have been dropped, including one in which he was accused of manipulating the heiress to the L’Oréal cosmetics fortune into financing his 2007 campaign.
Despite his legal woes, Mr. Sarkozy remains on good terms with President Emmanuel Macron, who has recently mirrored his tough stances on issues like crime and immigration, even making Gérald Darmanin, a former protégé of Mr. Sarkozy, his interior minister.
And while Mr. Sarkozy denies that he has new political ambitions — “politics is no longer my concern today,” he told BFM TV this month — he still holds considerable sway on the French right.
Mr. Sarkozy’s political party, Les Républicains, recently expressed “unswerving support” for him, and his ability to electrify the party’s base remains unparalleled, leading many right-wing hopefuls for the 2022 presidential elections to seek his anointment.
Last summer, Mr. Sarkozy’s latest book, a reflection on the first years of his presidency, was a best seller, and he is regularly swarmed for autographs and selfies during book signings.