How the Mighty have Fallen
The sentencing to jail of former French president Nicolas Sarkozy suggests how pervasive malpractice is in the world of politics - and the importance of shaming the perpetrators.
There's an unpleasant side to human nature that relishes seeing those who have achieved greatness slip from their pedestal. And for politicians in particular to fall from grace is almost a cause for celebration.
That's in part because so many politicians are not simply self-important, but seem to believe that the rules others are expected to follow don't apply to them. And because they are so rarely held to account for their misdemeanours.
So the jail sentence imposed this week on Nicolas Sarkozy, former centre-right president of France, is a big deal. He has been sentenced to one year in jail and a further two years suspended prison sentence for offering to bribe a judge.
He won't end up behind bars. For a start, Sarkozy - who continues to proclaim his innocence - is appealing against the verdict, which will delay the start of the sentence. And the judge who convicted him has already said that his jail term can be served at home with an electronic tag. So it would be house arrest rather than the cramped confinement of a jail cell.
French police found incriminating evidence against the 66-year-old former president when they intercepted conversations between Sarkozy and his lawyer. These took place on what are known as "burner" disposable mobile phones, often used because the calls can't easily be traced to a particular person.
The prosecution said that Sarkozy pledged to help a judge get a choice job in the distinctly desirable Mediterranean resort of Monaco in exchange for information on an investigation the former president was facing about receiving illicit funds. He still faces trial in another case about campaign spending.
Nicolas Sarkozy is still an influential figure in French politics and he argues that he's a victim of a political vendetta. But he's not alone among senior French politicians who have been found to bend the rules.
Francois Fillon, who was France's prime minister for part of the time Sarkozy was president, was last year sentenced to five years in prison (three of those years suspended) for fraud and misuse of funds. He has also lodged an appeal so has not as yet been locked up.
The late Jacques Chirac, who served twelve years as France's president, was found guilty in 2011 of diverting public funds and abusing public confidence - he was given a suspended sentence and so avoided jail. The offences related to irregularities in party funding when he was mayor of Paris, and have been described by one newspaper as relating to 'only a tiny aspect of a vast machine of corruption'.
So is France more corrupt than most other democracies, or more determined in prosecuting the powerful and influential? Or perhaps both?
British politics has never had a Sarkozy moment. But several British politicians have ended up in jail. Jeffrey Archer, the novelist, former MP and onetime deputy chairman of the Conservative Party, spent two years behind bars for perjury and perverting the course of justice. Jonathan Aitken, a former Conservative cabinet minister, faced seven months in prison for perjury.
Delving further back, a former Labour minister, John Stonehouse, served three years in jail for fraud after trying to fake his death by giving the impression that he'd been killed by a shark. Really!
And then there's the one that got away. Jeremy Thorpe, at the time one of Britain's best-known politicians and a former leader of the Liberal Party, was tried in 1979 on charges of conspiracy and incitement to murder his gay lover. He was acquitted. A TV dramatisation of the case three years ago raised fresh questions about Thorpe's role in the murder attempt (the target of the attack survived though his dog was shot dead).
American presidents, even the worst ones, haven't ended up behind bars. But there have been plenty of rogues in the US political landscape, as you may have noticed.
Take Rod Blagejovich, a former governor of the state of Illinois and a Democrat. He spent eight years in jail - until his sentence was commuted by (guess who!) Donald Trump last year - after being found guilty of public corruption, including seeking to gain from his power to nominate to fill a vacancy in the US Senate. He now hosts a politics podcast.
So does all this demonstrate that politicians the world over are on the make? Or that prosecuting erring politicians is the best way of encouraging others not to stray? Perhaps both!
(Cover image by Reuters)