Ex-French president Nicolas Sarkozy charged with corruption

Decision to press influence-peddling and corruption counts against former president are the latest blow to his hopes to make poll history

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 02 July, 2014, 10:24am
UPDATED : Thursday, 03 July, 2014, 11:19am

It was not the sort of history he was planning to make.

Nicolas Sarkozy has spent six months fine-tuning his plans to become the first man to have won, lost and then reclaimed the presidency of France.

Instead, the one-time "bling-bling" president with the supermodel wife once again finds his comeback hopes suspended as he attempts to wriggle free of a web of inter-connected corruption scandals.

The latest of these has seen him hit with charges including corruption and influence peddling.

The decision to charge the right-wing leader came yesterday after he was quizzed for 15 hours by judges investigating an alleged attempt to interfere in judicial proceedings in another case.

Sarkozy vehemently denies any wrongdoing.

After Tuesday's questioning under detention in a Paris police station, Sarkozy, 59, was put before a judge early yesterday.

The judge accepted the examining magistrates request for the former president to be mis en examen - literally "put under investigation" - the nearest equivalent of being charged in the French legal system.

Sarkozy's lawyer, Thierry Herzog, and senior magistrate Gilbert Azibert were charged with the same offences.

After the hearing, Sarkozy was allowed to return to his Paris home but he can be recalled to custody for fresh questioning at any time.

He is the first former president of France to be detained in a criminal probe but not the first to be charged with corruption.

Jacques Chirac was convicted in 2011 on graft charges but escaped prison on compassionate grounds due to ill health.

The charges against Sarkozy carry a maximum prison term of 10 years, but experts see custodial sentences in this case as unlikely.

President Francois Hollande said his predecessor must "benefit from the presumption of innocence", while Prime Minister Manuel Valls dismissed suggestions Sarkozy was being hounded by the Socialist government.

"It's not us who are asking these judges to launch investigations," Valls said.

Investigators suspect Sarkozy tried to obtain information from Azibert about confidential proceedings in an illegal election campaign financing case being considered by a high court, and that he was tipped off by a senior figure when judges tapped his phones last year.

Watch: Former French President Sarkozy charged with corruption

Sarkozy, 59, has faced virtually non-stop legal battles since he left office after his defeat by the Socialist Party's Hollande in 2012.

He had been expected to attempt a political comeback in time for the next presidential poll in 2017, but those plans now look to have been wrecked.

Sarkozy's close allies denounced what they see as a witch-hunt. "I question the impartiality of one of the judges who is nourished by hatred," Nice mayor Christian Estrosi said.

The case was launched after judges looking into the alleged financing of Sarkozy's 2007 election campaign by former Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi obtained an unprecedented and controversial authorisation to tap the former president's phones from April last year.

After four fruitless months they discovered Sarkozy had a secret phone registered under an assumed name, and recordings from that device led to the opening of the case in which he has now been charged.

At its root are allegations that Sarkozy was helped to victory in the 2007 election with up to €50 million (HK$530 million) from Gaddafi and envelopes stuffed with cash from France's richest woman, L'Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt.