France's former right-wing president Nicolas Sarkozy on Wednesday launched a defiant offensive to clear his name after being handed a three-year sentence for corruption, lambasting the verdict and mulling a petition to Europe's top rights court.
Sarkozy, 66, gave a front-page interview to the newspaper Le Figaro and was due later Wednesday to give a prime-time interview to the evening TF1 news bulletin.
With three other legal cases also pending against him, commentators have said Monday's conviction should deal a terminal blow to any hope Sarkozy has of a political comeback. But true to his combative reputation, the man who ruled France from 2007-2012 as a self-styled "hyper-president" indicated that he would not be going quietly.
"I can't accept being convicted for something I didn't do," Sarkozy told Le Figaro.
Sarkozy, who will appeal, is not expected to go behind bars: the sentence includes two years suspended and the remaining year would be served at home with an electronic bracelet.
The judgement was "riddled with inconsistencies", Sarkozy told the French newspaper. It "doesn't provide any proof, but just a bunch of circumstantial evidence," he said.
'Painful for me'
The court found that Sarkozy had formed a "corruption pact" with his former lawyer and friend Thierry Herzog to convince a judge, Gilbert Azibert, to obtain and share information about a legal investigation.
The crime was "particularly serious having been committed by a former president who was the guarantor of the independence of the Judiciary," Monday's judgement said.
"Perhaps it will be necessary to take this battle to the [Strasbourg-based] European Court of Human Rights," Sarkozy said.
"It would be painful for me to have my own country condemned, but I am ready because that would be the price of democracy."
The judgement is also far from marking the end of Sarkozy's legal woes and on March 17, the ex-president is scheduled to face a second trial over accusations of fraudulently overspending in his failed 2012 re-election bid.
In a strongly-worded editorial, the newspaper Le Monde urged Sarkozy to put an end to his confrontation with the French legal system and stop whipping up the anger of his supporters towards judges.
"Today, he is reaping what he has sowed and must consider the advisability of continuing this populist excess, which has not only become a trap for him but a risk for the country," it said.
In a sign of what a polarising figure Sarkozy has become, staff at the newspaper Le Parisien issued a statement through their unions distancing themselves from an editorial written by its director Jean-Michel Salvator backing Sarkozy.
His editorial castigated court decisions against Sarkozy which have shown "increased severity or relentless intransigence."
Right-wing allies of Sarkozy have also rushed to his defence, portraying him as the victim of a witch hunt by France's national financial prosecutors.
"When some judges start to play politics, the role of lawmakers is to strongly denounce it," Guillaume Peltier, the deputy leader of right-wing opposition party The Republicans, told LCI television.
He said there could no longer be justice when "the poison of politicisation and partiality hangs over the judiciary".
Before his conviction, there had been whispers that Sarkozy could be the ideal candidate to represent the right against President Emmanuel Macron in 2022 polls, given the lack of other suitable hopefuls.
Despite his legal travails, Sarkozy retains considerable support on the right and his latest book topped bestseller lists for weeks last summer.
Asked by Le Figaro about his political future, Sarkozy insisted: "I've said that I won't be a candidate and I stand by that."
As well as the March 17 trial, Sarkozy has also been charged over allegations he received millions of euros from the late Libyan dictator Moamer Kadhafi for his 2007 election campaign.
And in January, prosecutors opened another probe into alleged influence-peddling by Sarkozy over his advisory activities in Russia.
by Stuart Williams, AFP