France's former leader Nicolas Sarkozy went on trial on corruption charges today, becoming the first French president to stand as an accused in the dock.
Sarkozy, 65, appeared in the Paris courthouse wearing a face mask and surrounded by lawyers and bodyguards today as he prepared to contest the charges of bribery, which he denies.
While Sarkozy's predecessor Jacques Chirac was convicted in a fake-jobs scandal relating to his time as mayor of Paris, he never appeared in court because of ill health - making Sarkozy the first president in the dock.
The investigation into Sarkozy, who served from 2007 to 2012 and was defeated in a comeback bid in 2016, also saw him become the first ex-president taken into police custody for questioning.
After the trial opened today, it was postponed until Thursday to assess the health of a co-defendant, judge Gilbert Azibert, whose lawyer said he was at high risk of contracting Covid-19 because of a heart condition.
France's former president Nicolas Sarkozy, centre, arrives with his lawyer Jacqueline Laffont, left, for the opening day of his bribery trial in Paris today
Prosecutors claim that Sarkozy offered to get the judge a plum job in Monaco in return for information about a separate probe into Sarkozy.
That inquiry was investigating claims that Sarkozy had accepted illegal payments from L'Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt for his 2007 presidential campaign, although that case was eventually dropped.
Charged with bribery and peddling influence, Sarkozy risks a prison sentence of up to 10 years and a fine of one million euros.
Part of the evidence comes from wiretaps of phone conversations between Sarkozy and his longtime lawyer Thierry Herzog, which were authorised as part of a third probe into suspected Libyan financing of the 2007 campaign.
That inquiry is still going on, though Sarkozy caught a break this month when his main accuser retracted a central claim of having delivered millions of euros in cash from Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi.
Sarkozy has fought furiously to have the bribery case thrown out, denouncing what he called 'a scandal that will go down in history'.
'I am not a crook,' Sarkozy told French television this month.
Sarkozy and Herzog, who is also on trial, had argued the wiretaps breached client-lawyer privilege but the courts dismissed their complaints.
Investigators discovered that Sarkozy used an alias - Paul Bismuth - to buy a phone for secret talks with his lawyer.
The pair discussed reaching out to judge Gilbert Azibert, who prosecutors say was tasked with getting information to sway the Bettencourt inquiry in Sarkozy's favour.
In exchange, Sarkozy would allegedly use his contacts to try to secure the Monaco post for Azibert, who is also on trial.
Sarkozy, pictured, was president of France from 2007 to 2012. He later launched a comeback bid but was defeated in a 2016 party primary
But later, Sarkozy appeared to back away from the Monaco plan - a sign, according to prosecutors, that the two men had been tipped off about the wiretaps.
'All this is nothing more than sentence fragments taken out of context,' Herzog's lawyer Paul-Albert Iweins told France Info radio on Monday, calling them 'conversations between very old friends'.
Herzog faces the same charges as Sarkozy, and a further allegation of violating professional secrecy. The trial is expected to last until December 10.
Sarkozy, a lawyer by training, says the judiciary have been waging a vendetta because he attempted to limit judges' powers and accused them of being soft.
He is due back in court in March 2021 along with 13 other people over claims of campaign finance violations during his unsuccessful 2012 re-election bid.
Prosecutors accuse Sarkozy's team of using a fake-invoices scheme orchestrated by the public relations firm Bygmalion to spend nearly €43million on the lavish run.
Chirac, who died last year, was convicted of 2011 of misusing public funds while he was mayor of Paris, and was given a suspended two-year prison sentence.
He was the country's first head of state to be convicted since Nazi collaborator Marshal Philippe Petain in 1945.