Nicolas Sarkozy was set to fight allegations of corruption and influence peddling in a high-profile trial that was due to start Monday — the first in a series of legal cases that could make or break the former French president’s political legacy. 

But the proceedings were immediately delayed because one of the politician’s co-defendants argued that he could not appear in person because of health problems, prompting the court to assign a medical expert to evaluate him. A decision is expected on Thursday.

Once the case begins, prosecutors will lay out their allegations that Mr Sarkozy and his lawyer Thierry Herzog sought to bribe a judge to get information about a separate criminal case involving a politician, his political allies, and billionaire L’Oréal heiress Françoise Bettencourt.

That a former president is forced to appear in court is rare and legal experts have called it a key test for France’s anti-corruption investigators and judges. The last time a former French leader faced trial was in 2011, when Jacques Chirac was convicted of misusing public funds during his time as Paris mayor.

Mr Sarkozy, who led the country from 2007-12, is to stand a separate campaign finance trial in March for allegedly overspending by more than €20m in his failed re-election bid in 2012. Last month, he was also placed under formal investigation for criminal conspiracy over allegedly accepting illegal financing from Libya under its ruler Muammer Gaddafi for his 2007 campaign. He has denied wrongdoing in all cases.

In the past few years, Mr Sarkozy — a lawyer by training — has taken on a more prominent role in business as a consigliere to some of France’s leading companies. He sits on the board of hotel group Accor, retail and publishing group Lagardère, and hotels and casino operator Groupe Barrière. 

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The former president also enjoys continued influence in politics as an eminence grise of the centre-right, and many of his one-time staff members and allies are still in positions of power in regional governments or in the administration of President Emmanuel Macron. 

Thierry Herzog, Nicolas Sarkozy’s lawyer, is also on trial © AFP via Getty Images

French investigators stumbled on the alleged corruption after they began monitoring Mr Sarkozy’s communications in 2013 as part of an inquiry into whether his successful 2007 presidential campaign had received an illegal €50m donation from Gaddafi.

They had Mr Sarkozy and his lawyer Mr Herzog wiretapped for months, and that was how they learned of their offer of a job to judge Gilbert Azibert in exchange for information. 

The defendants, Mr Sarkozy, Mr Herzog and Mr Azibert, risk up to 10 years in prison and large fines if convicted. They have all maintained their innocence.

Mr Azibert’s lawyers said on Monday that their client’s doctors had advised him against travelling from Bordeaux to Paris to appear in court because he was at risk of Covid-19 complications given his history of cardiac problems and high blood pressure. Prosecutors have proposed that he attend the trial by videoconference, but Mr Azibert has refused, arguing he had the right to be present.

A medical expert will evaluate the matter, and the judges will announce a decision on Thursday about how to proceed.

In a recent combative television interview, Mr Sarkozy hit back against what he cast as a years-long judicial crusade against him. The interview was a response to a key witness Ziad Takieddine recently retracting in Paris Match magazine some of his earlier allegations against Mr Sarkozy in the Libyan campaign financing case of 2007.

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“I know now that being innocent does not mean you will not have legal problems. These hardships destroy you, or they make you a better person. I am combative,” he told BFM TV last week. “The French must know that I am not rotten.” 

Ziad Takieddine, a key witness, recently retracted some of his allegations against Mr Sarkozy © AFP via Getty Images

Some of his political allies have nursed hopes that Mr Sarkozy could one day make a comeback to politics given his continued popularity among more conservative French voters. His former party Les Republicains have had trouble coalescing around a candidate to take on Mr Macron in the 2022 presidential election.

Mr Sarkozy seemed to rule out such a return when asked about it by BFM. “I’ve turned the page, and I’m happy like this. I’m now fighting for the truth and for justice.”

Via Financial Times