Paris: France's former president Nicolas Sarkozy has been charged with corruption and influence peddling in a dramatic move in a criminal probe.
The decision came after Mr 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 held for questioning over inquiry leaks
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Sarkozy held for questioning over inquiry leaks
Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy is taken in for questioning over suspicions that he received leaked details of an inquiry into alleged irregularities in his 2007 election campaign.
Mr Sarkozy, a conservative who was president from 2007 to 2012, had been detained at a police station in a Paris suburb in connection with a suspected attempt to illegally influence judicial proceedings in one of a raft of colourful corruption cases he is implicated in.
After the lengthy questioning, the former president was taken in the early hours of Wednesday to appear before a judge, where he was charged with corruption and influence peddling, the prosecution said.
If convicted of those charges, he could face a sentence of up to 10 years in prison.
Mr Sarkozy's long-time 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.
Authorities are trying to establish whether Mr Sarkozy, with the help of Mr Herzog, tried to obtain information from Mr Azibert, a well-placed judge, about investigations ensnaring the former president, including an inquiry into the financing of his 2007 election campaign.
Specifically, they will seek to establish whether Mr Sarkozy tried to get the judge promoted to the bench in Monaco in exchange for information on the investigation.
Last October, magistrates dropped a formal investigation into Mr Sarkozy's role in irregularities in that 2007 campaign, and whether he had exploited the mental frailty of France's richest woman, L'Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt, to fund it.
But as investigators used phone taps to examine separate allegations that late Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi donated up to €50 million to the same campaign, they began to suspect he had kept tabs on the Bettencourt case through a network of informants.
Those suspicions finally prompted police to launch an inquiry in February, which led to Wednesday's formal investigation and charges.
Mr Sarkozy has consistently denied any allegations of impropriety, and compared those who tapped his phones to the Stasi, the secret police in East Germany. He has said he received no financial support from Libya and has insisted that the accusations – made by former allies of Gaddafi and his sons – are politically motivated and derive from his role in orchestrating the international military intervention in Libya in 2011 that ultimately led to Gaddafi's ousting.
Suspicions have also focused on Mr Azibert, who prosecutors suspect may have fed information to Mr Sarkozy on the direction of the judicial proceedings against him. According to French newspaper Le Monde, recorded conversations between the men included a discussion of whether Mr Sarkozy's 2007 campaign received improper donations from Ms Bettencourt, now 91. Evidence in that case has been used in another case in which Mr Sarkozy has come under suspicion with regard to a $US550 million government payout in 2008 to Bernard Tapie, a businessman with a murky past.
The investigation into breach of judicial secrecy and influence-peddling was opened amid suspicions that Mr Azibert was Mr Sarkozy's informant, according to Le Monde and government documents. In return for keeping the former president briefed, the French media reported, Mr Azibert suggested to Mr Sarkozy that he would appreciate obtaining a post in Monaco.
Mr Sarkozy's allies on the right of the political spectrum denounced what they see as a witch-hunt against their man.
''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.
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.
Government spokesman Stephane Le Foll insisted the judges in the case had acted of their own accord. ''The justice system is investigating and will follow this through to the end. Nicolas Sarkozy can face justice just like anyone else,'' Mr Le Foll said.
AFP, Reuters, New York Times