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In Europe, former presidents do get sentenced to prison.

It might shock Americans, but convicting political leaders is neither a democratic disaster nor democracy's salvation.

- March 4, 2021

Editors’ note: In honor of Presidents’ Day, we are highlighting this article, originally published on March 4, 2021, about how differently Europeans and Americans treat former presidents accused and convicted of misdeeds.

On Monday, former French President Nicolas Sarkozy was found guilty of corruption — he tried to get confidential information from a judge in return for using his influence to secure a cushy job for the judge — and sentenced to prison. The judges found his actions “particularly serious, having been committed by a former president of the Republic who was once the guarantor of an independent judiciary.” In the past, Sarkozy has also been charged with accepting funds from the government of Moammar Gaddafi, a case that is still ongoing, as well as manipulating an aging heiress to obtain illegal campaign contributions and more.

At least one American journalist found the idea that France’s former president could be convicted and imprisoned “absolutely shocking.” Certainly many Americans would be shocked if former U.S. President Donald Trump, now facing myriad legal problems, were to end up in prison. Yet Sarkozy’s case is not that shocking for students of European politics. He is not the first European leader to be charged and convicted of crimes during or after leaving office, and surely won’t be the last.

Other presidents have been convicted

Sarkozy isn’t even the first French president to suffer this fate. In 2011 Jacques Chirac, who served two terms as president from 1995 to 2007, was found guilty of “embezzling money, abusing the public trust and conflict of interest by creating false jobs at Paris City Hall.” His two-year prison sentence was suspended, however, because he was too old and enfeebled to serve it. France has a mixed executive in which not just presidents but prime ministers both play important roles. Sarkozy’s own former prime minister, François Fillon, was given a five-year prison sentence and ordered to pay a fine of 375,000 euros ($421,000) for misusing public funds and corporate assets for private gain.

Consider former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, who oversaw German reunification and was the longest-serving chancellor since Otto von Bismarck in the late 1800s. After leaving office, Kohl was charged in a long-standing and wide-ranging corruption scandal that included illegal campaign donations, influence peddling, party slush funds and tax evasion; other German politicians were charged too. In keeping with Germans’ love of inventing compound words, this scandal was called the Schwarzgeldaffäre, or “black money affair.”

Next door in Austria, such scandals and charges have become part of everyday politics. In December, former finance minister Karl-Heinz Grasser was found guilty of corruption and sentenced to eight years in prison; his conviction came as part of an investigation into “crimes of unbelievable proportions” that ensnared other high-ranking politicians, including former two-time Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel. Just a few weeks ago, the current finance minister’s home was raided by anti-corruption officials. The list of former prime ministers charged with corruption and other crimes could also include scandals in Belgium, Spain, Estonia and elsewhere.

This has lessons for the American right and left

Europe’s experience with charging and even convicting former leaders has important implications for the debates about whether Donald Trump should be indicted on a charge of various crimes committed before and while in office.

Some, mostly on the right, argue that charging Trump with crimes would prevent “healing” and destabilize democracy. Others, mostly on the left, argue that Trump must be punished to protect the rule of law and restabilize democracy. Although they agree on little else, both sides concur that how the U.S. deals with Trump “will have long-lasting implications” for democracy.

The European experience suggests that this consensus is wrong. Charges and even convictions of individual former leaders have not had particularly profound or long-lasting implications for European democracies.

Of course, the particular politicians charged and convicted have suffered reputational damage. Sarkozy, for example, will likely see his political influence decline; Helmut Kohl had to give up the honorary chairmanship of his party; Wolfgang Schüssel was forced to permanently leave politics, and so on. But even after convictions, few of these politicians were treated as pariahs. Both Chirac and Kohl were praised by party comrades and others at their funerals.

Might voters stop supporting the party of an indicted politician? The evidence suggests that when charges have been limited to a particular president, prime minister or circumscribed group of high-ranking officials, the parties suffered only temporary electoral setbacks, even when the politician was convicted. But there’s a key exception: When charges discredit the leader of a new party that lacks a stable electoral base or organizational infrastructure, that party can easily fall apart.

The European cases also offer little evidence that individual instances of former presidents or prime ministers being charged with crimes affects democracy in any significant or long-term manner. Both voters and other politicians seem to move on fairly quickly when particular leaders are charged, convicted and even imprisoned for crimes. However, the European cases do make clear that there can be big consequences for democracy when not just particular politicians but the broader political class is found to be corrupt or breaking the law. The most extreme example of this is Italy, where the entire party system collapsed in the late 20th century after revelations of systemic corruption.

The crucial question for democracy’s health is whether it is possible to stop corruption and criminal activity from spreading beyond individual politicians to politics as a whole. In France, many politicians — some quite powerful — have been charged and convicted, showing that such actions do not stop corruption in its tracks. For that, not just court cases but systemic reforms are likely necessary.

Sheri Berman is a professor of political science at Barnard College.