The United States waded into new territory on Thursday with the indictment of former president Donald Trump, a move that was unprecedented in US history. But other liberal democracies have extensive experience charging former – and sometimes current – leaders. While a serving French leader is generally safe from prosecution, former presidents Nicolas Sarkozy and Jacques Chirac were convicted after leaving office.
A grand jury on Thursday indicted Trump in connection with a payment to an adult film actress in exchange for keeping silent on an alleged affair she had with Trump more than 15 years ago. The related charges could involve possible campaign-finance violations and falsification of business records. Trump is to appear in court on Tuesday.
Trump’s indictment is groundbreaking for the United States but not all that uncommon among liberal democracies – despite prominent Trump supporters saying the charges make the US look like a dysfunctional “banana republic”.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving premier, is currently being tried on allegations of bribery, fraud and breach of trust. Former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi was convicted for tax fraud in 2012 and sentenced to four years in prison, although three years were suspended and he served the remaining year doing community service because he was over 70. Berlusconi was also sentenced to seven years in prison in 2013 after being convicted of paying for sex with a minor and abuse of power (the verdict was later reversed on appeal).
South Korea’s impeached president Park Geun-hye was sentenced to more than 20 years for corruption and abuse of power in 2018, although she was pardoned by her successor after serving less than five years. Former South Korean president Lee Myung-bak was sentenced to 15 years in prison for embezzlement and accepting bribes in 2018 but was pardoned by the current president in late 2022.
“It’s always a big deal when a former president or prime minister is indicted, but in most democracies, it is normal when they’re credibly accused of serious crimes,” Steven Levitsky, a professor of government at Harvard, told The New York Times this week.
France has prosecuted two ex-presidents, Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy, as well as former prime minister François Fillon on charges ranging from campaign finance violations to embezzlement.
Jacques Chirac Upon his death in 2018, Chirac was lionised by many French citizens for his avuncular style, his air of gravitas as an international statesman (notably his opposition to the 2003 Iraq War), and for combining cultural conservatism with centre-left economics. But while he was in the Élysée Palace from 1995 to 2007, many excoriated him as a “crook”.
Investigating magistrates launched an investigation into Chirac’s running of the Council of Paris, which administers the capital, in 1999 after receiving a complaint accusing him of widespread abuses of power while he was mayor from 1977 to 1995. But presidential immunity protected him as long as he remained in office.
Corruption allegations against Chirac became a running joke on the country’s most famous satirical TV programme Les Guignols de l’Info, which mocked him as a cape-wearing anti-hero “Super Menteur” (“Super Liar”). One sketch portrayed Chirac and his wife Bernadette as a pair of aged rappers, wallowing in banknotes as they revelled in contravening the law.
But nostalgia for Chirac increased as the French electorate tired of the glitzy style of his successor, who critics dubbed Nicolas “Bling Bling” Sarkozy. Nevertheless, in 2011 Chirac became the first former French president to be prosecuted in a landmark trial.
Chirac was found guilty of influence peddling, breach of trust and embezzlement, when during his tenure as Paris mayor he put 21 people on the municipal payroll who actually worked for his conservative political party, Rally for the Republic. Judges said his actions as Paris mayor had cost the city’s taxpayers €1.4 million.
Chirac was not present at the trial, after his lawyers supplied a medical report saying he suffered from memory loss and ill health, among other “severe and irreversible” neurological problems.
Chirac was given a two-year suspended sentence in late 2011 due to his advanced age and frailty.
Alain Juppé, Chirac’s prime minister (and who later served as foreign minister), was also found guilty of corruption in relation to the case in 2004. He was given a 14-month suspended sentence and barred from public office.
Chirac thus became the first French leader to stand trial since Marshal Philippe Pétain, who was convicted of treason after World War II for collaborating with Nazi Germany.
Nicolas Sarkozy President of France from 2007 to 2012, Nicolas Sarkozy was convicted of corruption in two separate trials.
In March 2021, Sarkozy was found guilty of attempting to bribe a judge by offering him a lucrative job in exchange for confidential information on one of the many probes launched against him since he left office. He was sentenced to three years in prison, two of them suspended, in what became known as the the “Bismuth” affair, making him the first former head of state in post-war France to receive a custodial sentence. He has appealed against the ruling.
In September 2021, Sarkozy was sentenced to one year of house arrest, tagged with an electronic monitoring bracelet, after he was found guilty of illegal campaign financing during his failed 2012 re-election campaign and losing a subsequent appeal. France has strict legal limits on how much can be spent on political campaigns; a series of US-style election rallies caused Sarkozy’s costs to spiral, with the final bill reaching at least €42.8 million, nearly double the legal limit of €22.5 million.
The court said that Sarkozy knew weeks before the 2012 election that the legal limit risked being breached and “voluntarily” declined to supervise extra expenses, as prosecutors accused him of having ignored two notes from his accountants flagging up the issue.
The case became known as the Bygmalion Affair, after the name of the PR firm that created fake invoices to obfuscate the real cost of the rallies.
Sarkozy is also facing allegations that he illegally accepted funds from former Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi to finance his inaugural, and ultimately successful, 2007 election campaign. Sarkozy was first placed under formal investigation for illegal campaign financing in 2018 before facing “criminal association” accusations in 2020.
François Fillon Nicolas Sarkozy’s conservative prime minister François Fillon was the favourite to win the 2017 presidential elections, riding high in the polls until the “Penelopegate” scandal kiboshed his run and before upstart Emmanuel Macron supplanted him as the frontrunner.
In January 2017, French satirical newspaper Le Canard Enchaîné reported that Fillon’s wife Penelope had been his parliamentary assistant for 15 years, earning around €1 million, despite appearing to do little to no actual work.
Fillon was handed a five-year prison sentence in 2020 with three years suspended and barred from office for 10 years; Penelope was given a three-year suspended sentence. In 2022, an appeals court reduced their sentences to four years with three years suspended and just two years suspended, respectively.
But the court maintained the €375,000 fines that were imposed on each of them in the “fake jobs” scandal. They were also ordered to repay €800,000 to the National Assembly (lower house of parliament).
Under French sentencing guidelines, it is likely that Fillon will spend his jail time under house arrest, tagged electronically, instead of going to jail.
The Fillons’ defence team say they will lodge a further appeal with France’s highest court.