Graft charges cloud future for Sarkozy

Updated: 2014-07-03 07:42

By Agencies in Paris (China Daily)

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Graft charges cloud future for Sarkozy

Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy arrives with police by car at the financial investigation unit in Paris to be presented to a judge on Tuesday. Pascal Rossignol / Reuters

Probe could wreck former French leader's hopes of a political comeback

France's former president Nicolas Sarkozy has been charged with corruption and influence peddling, French prosecutors said on Wednesday, a dramatic move in a criminal probe that could wreck his hopes of a political comeback.

The decision came after Sarkozy was questioned for 15 hours, marking the first time a French ex-head of state had been taken into custody in a criminal investigation.

Sarkozy had been detained at a police station in a Paris suburb over a suspected attempt to illegally influence judicial proceedings in one of a raft of colorful corruption cases he is implicated in.

After the lengthy questioning, the former president was taken in early on Wednesday to appear before a judge, where he was "mis en examen" - put under formal investigation in what amounts to being charged, based on preliminary evidence - the prosecution said in a statement. He was then released while the investigation went ahead.

If convicted of the charges, Sarkozy could face a sentence of up to 10 years in prison.

"This situation is serious and the charges are serious ... and furthermore they concern senior magistrates, a lawyer and a former president," Prime Minister Manuel Valls said on Wednesday.

"The most important thing is for the judicial system to be able to work in a fully independent manner and peacefully and that the presumption of innocence is respected," Valls said on BFM television.

The prime minister denied suggestions that Sarkozy was being hounded by the Socialist government. "It's not us who are asking these judges to launch investigations," he said.

Sarkozy's longtime lawyer Thierry Herzog and a magistrate, Gilbert Azibert - taken into custody a day earlier alongside another magistrate - were both charged with influence peddling in a late night court appearance, their respective lawyers said.

Investigators suspect Sarkozy tried to obtain inside information from one of the magistrates about confidential proceedings in an illegal election campaign financing case, and that he was tipped off by a senior figure when judges tapped his phones.

Sarkozy, 59, has faced virtually non-stop legal battles since he left office following his defeat by Socialist candidate Francois Hollande in the 2012 presidential vote.

He had been expected to attempt a political comeback in time for the next presidential poll in 2017, but those plans could be torpedoed after being charged in this case.

'Witch hunt'

He vehemently denies any wrongdoing, and his allies denounced what they see as a witch hunt against Sarkozy.

"Never before has a former president been subjected to such treatment, such an unleashing of hate," said Christian Estrosi, the mayor of Nice and an MP for Sarkozy's UMP party.

The case was launched after judges looking into the alleged financing of Sarkozy's 2007 election campaign by former Libyan leader Muammar Gadhafi obtained an unprecedented and controversial authorization to tap the former president's phones from April 2013.

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 influence peddling investigation.

At the root of the case are the allegations that Sarkozy was helped to victory in the 2007 election with up to 50 million euros ($70 million at the time) from Gadhafi and envelopes stuffed with cash from France's richest woman, L'Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt.

He dismisses the Gadhafi claims as ridiculous in light of his leading role in the Libyan leader's 2011 overthrow, and he was acquitted last year of taking Bettencourt's money.