Nicolas Sarkozy on trial for alleged illegal campaign financing

The former French president Nicolas Sarkozy has gone on trial for the alleged illegal campaign financing of the massive, showman-style political rallies he staged during his failed re-election bid in 2012.

Sarkozy, president for one term from 2007 to 2012, was not present for the opening of the trial in Paris on Thursday but will take the stand next month.

In March he became France’s first postwar president to be sentenced to prison in another case for corruption and influence peddling, where he was found guilty of plotting with a lawyer to obtain and share confidential information from a judge in an inquiry into different campaign financing in 2007. He denies wrongdoing and has appealed against the conviction.

The latest trial, which is to run for a month, is dubbed the “Bygmalion” case for the name of the events company that organised Sarkozy’s elaborate and artfully-filmed stadium gigs in front of thousands of flag-waving fans when he was fighting for re-election and lost to the Socialist party’s François Hollande.

Sarkozy, who was seen as one of the best orators on the French right, delivered thunderous speeches from slick, purpose-built sets in huge venues with massive audiences, accompanied by specially-composed music as renowned directors filmed the extravaganzas for TV and beamed images onto giant screens around the room. It is alleged that a fake billing scheme was put in place that allowed a massive overspend above the legal limit.

Sarkozy, 66, is facing allegations that he spent almost twice the maximum legal amount of €22.5m (£19.4m) . An investigative magistrate concluded that Sarkozy and his close entourage decided to hold “spectacular and expensive rallies”. Some of the biggest took place when polls showed he was faring badly against Hollande.

Sarkozy denies any wrongdoing. His entourage has said that he was not aware of any of the details of organisation and payment for rallies as he was too busy running the country.

The former president and 13 others are accused of setting up or benefiting from a fake billing scheme to cover millions of euros in excess spending on the rallies to attempt to fend off Hollande who was running his own campaign as a “Mr Normal” seeking to crack down on the world of finance.

Prosecutors have said that accountants warned Sarkozy the campaign was set to overtake the €22.5m spending limit, but that he insisted on holding more events. Eventually the campaign spent nearly €43m.

Sarkozy will argue in court that he was unaware of the scheme that allegedly created fake invoices for his party, then called the UMP and since renamed Les Républicains. Unlike some of the defendants, Sarkozy is not charged with fraud, but with the lesser offence of illegal campaign financing.

If convicted, Sarkozy risks up to a year in prison and a fine of €3,750.

Sarkozy is facing other ongoing legal investigations. He has been placed under formal investigation in what is potentially France’s most explosive political financing scandal in decades: allegations that he secretly received €50m from the former Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi for his successful 2007 election campaign. Sarkozy has repeatedly denied the allegations, dismissing them as “grotesque”.

In January, prosecutors opened an inquiry into alleged influence-peddling involving his activities as a consultant in Russia.

Sarkozy remains an influential and popular figure on the right, being interviewed on TV and featuring on magazine covers. His political books top bestseller lists.