Sarkozy on the radar of French prosecutors
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Nicolas Sarkozy loses his judicial immunity on Saturday. France's former president may soon face an embarrassing grilling by French prosecutors over a series of party funding allegations that had dogged his term in office.
France’s former president Nicolas Sarkozy would be forgiven for having a sleepless night on Friday.
After losing out to François Hollande in May’s presidential run-off vote, Sarkozy has kept a low profile.
After failing to win a second term in office, the former lawyer expressed his desire to re-enter the legal profession. His wish may be granted but not quite in the way he initially envisaged.
At 12.01am on Saturday, Sarkozy’s presidential immunity, a law which protects France’s head of states from prosecution, will be officially withdrawn.
Sarkozy will then be at the mercy of prosecutors and judges investigating a series of scandals related to illegal party funding and kickbacks which plagued his five years in office.
And with the loss of his immunity Sarkozy can now be hauled before judges to be questioned as a witness or even a suspect.
One source close to Sarkozy told France’s Europe 1 radio station the former president was “totally serene” at the prospect of being summoned, but many others see a rocky road ahead.
“He should be worried,” Professor Philippe Marliere of University College London told France 24. “It looks pretty damning.”
The scandal that looks most likely to trouble Sarkozy revolves around France’s richest woman, L’Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt.
Judges in Bordeaux are looking into allegations that Bettencourt’s former financial adviser made illegally donations to fund Sarkozy’s 2007 presidential election campaign.
The source of many of these allegations is Bettencourt’s former accountant Claire Thibout.
Thibout’s lawyer Antoine Gillot told Europe 1 radio station recently that "it is absolutely necessary that Sarkozy is interrogated in regards to this affair."
The scandal has already claimed some high profile victims, notably Sarkozy’s former budget minister and treasurer of his UMP party Eric Woerth, who was placed under judicial investigation in February.
Patrice de Maistre, Bettencourt’s former financial adviser, has also been put under official investigation.
Spying on journalists
With his immunity gone, there is the distinct prospect that he will be next to come under the radar of judges although Sarkozy has always denied any involvement.
“France being France, meant that up to now nothing has really happened on this because there was always a chance of Sarkozy being re-elected,” UCL’s Marliere told FRANCE24. ”But now everything will depend on how justice unfolds.”
Another case prosecutors might want to question Sarkozy about relates to allegations France’s secret services were ordered to spy on journalists from Le Monde newspaper, who were reporting the Bettencourt affair.
Former security chief Bernard Squarcini, another Sarkozy ally, is already under formal investigation on allegations that the intelligence services illegally obtained journalists’ phone records in a bid to find the source of the revelations made by Le Monde in the Bettencourt case.
Potentially the most damaging corruption probe Sarkozy is embroiled in surrounds allegations that kick backs from French arms sales to Pakistan helped fund the failed 1995 presidential campaign of Edouard Balladur.
At the time of the alleged payments Sarkozy was Balladur’s campaign spokesman and budget minister.
Balladur has told investigators that the money came from the sale of T-shirts and gadgets during the campaign and Sarkozy has denied any wrongdoing.
As in the other investigations, the scandal has already claimed victims close to the former president, including one who was a witness to his 2008 wedding to model and singer Carla Bruni.
Another embarrassing funding emerged in the run up to the 2012 presidential election when the French investigative website Mediapart published a letter supposedly proving former Libyan leader Muammar Gadaffi had funded Sarkozy’s 2007 campaign.
Sarkozy slammed the story calling it a “stitch up” and immediately launched legal proceedings against Mediapart.
Libya’s National Transitional Council also poured cold water on the allegations declaring the letter was a fake.
Nevertheless a judicial investigation was opened and judges may want to question Sarkozy.
A president’s precedent
Prosecutors in France have already shown they will not hold back when it comes to taking on former heads of state.
In December 2011 Jacques Chirac’s political career was given an embarrassing post-script when a court found him guilty of misusing public funds during his time as mayor of Paris between 1977 and 1995.
Chirac was given a suspended prison sentence but he was spared the humiliating ordeal of attending trial because of ill-health.
If he finds himself in hot water Sarkozy is unlikely to be spared that luxury.
“This is only just starting for Sarkozy now,” UCL’s Marliere said. “It will go on for quite some time.”