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By Tangi Salaün
PARIS (Reuters) - Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy went back on trial on Wednesday, this time on charges of illegally financing his failed 2012 re-election bid, but judges adjourned proceedings due to the absence of a defence lawyer sick with COVID-19.
Sarkozy, 66, was not present for the opening of the trial, which comes less than three weeks after he was sentenced to three years in prison for corruption and influence-peddling.
Prosecutors allege that Sarkozy's party, then known as the UMP, splurged nearly double the 22.5 million euros ($27 million) permitted under electoral law on extravagant campaign rallies, then used a friendly public relations agency to hide the cost.
In their indictment, the prosecutors acknowledge their investigation had failed to prove Sarkozy either organised or was involved in the scheme, but argue that he benefited from it and must have been aware of it.
"The election candidate and his inner circle opted to focus the campaign on spectacular and expensive rallies and to entrust the organisation to specialist agencies," the indictment reads.
The trial casts another ignominious pall over a political career that saw Sarkozy bestride the national and global stage for five years, but dramatically fall from grace in a courtroom this month.
He has consistently denied wrongdoing and said he was not aware of a fake billing process. If found guilty, he could be jailed for up to a year and fined up to 3,750 euros.
Judges postponed the trial until May 20 after the defence lawyer for Jerome Lavrilleux, Sarkozy's 2012 deputy campaign chief and one of 13 co-defendants, fell ill with COVID-19.
Lavrilleux has publicly acknowledged that he oversaw the rerouting of funds paid to the PR agency Bygmalion to camouflage the cost of the campaign events. He has said he acted on his own initiative.
Two co-founders of Bygmalion are also among the accused. One of them, Guy Alves, has publicly acknowledged the fake billing. In 2014, a lawyer for Bygmalion said the company had acted under political pressure.
Sarkozy was sentenced on March 1 to three years in prison, with two of them suspended, for trying to bribe a judge to give him inside information on another investigation, into his 2007 campaign finances. He has lodged an appeal.
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(Reporting by Tangi Salaun; Writing by Richard Lough; Editing by Kevin Liffey and Mark Heinrich)