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Beset by legal woes, Sarkozy blasts ‘political ends’

Screen grab from TF1

Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy has said the country’s legal system was being exploited for “political ends” in his first interview since he was placed under formal investigation for influence-peddling.

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“The situation is sufficiently serious to tell the French people where we stand on the political exploitation of part of the legal system today," Sarkozy told Europe 1 radio and TF1 television in an interview broadcast Wednesday evening.

The interview came a day after the former centre-right leader was detained and then placed under formal investigation over suspicions of using his influence to get information about another investigation into his 2007 election campaign financing.

This is the first time a former French president was held in police custody, although ex-presidents have faced corruption charges before.

In a pugnacious primetime interview, Sarkozy denied any wrongdoing and maintained that he had never broken the law. "I have never committed any act contrary to the values of the republic or the rule of law," said Sarkozy, noting that he had “never betrayed the confidence" of the French people.

“There was an intention to humiliate me by summoning me in the form of a formal detention," said Sarkozy, referring to the 14-hour police questioning he was subjected to on Tuesday, without the presence of any of his lawyers. “Is it normal that I should be in custody for so long?'' asked Sarkozy.

A sometimes divisive figure who is often considered to be outside the French establishment despite his rise to the country’s top job, Sarkozy suggested that the French bureaucracy and justice system was biased and weighted against him.

The former French president singled out one of the two judges who questioned him early Wednesday after his 14-hour police grilling, which ended shortly before midnight Tuesday.

“Is it normal to choose a judge who belongs to the SM?” asked Sarkozy, referring to the Syndicat de le Magistrature, a left-wing union that officially supported Hollande’s candidacy in the 2012 presidential election.

Although Sarkozy did not name the judge, French viewers were in little doubt that the former president was referring to Judge Claire Thépaut, who, he claimed had a “political obsession to destroy” him.

Eyeing party leadership race in August

The latest development in the long list of legal woes confronting the former French leader came as Sarkozy had been quietly laying the ground for a comeback to power amid widespread dissatisfaction with Hollande, a resurgent far-right National Front (FN) and disarray within his own UMP party.

When asked about his future political plans, Sarkozy said he would decide by the end of August whether he intends to run for the UMP leadership race. The centre-right party has been in disarray following a leadership crisis, with the FN making strong gains ahead of the 2017 presidential election.

The 59-year-old former president has faced virtually non-stop legal battles since he left office, including a number of inquiries into wrongdoings.

The current case for which he has been placed under formal investigation – a situation that may or may not end in a trial – relates to allegations that he used his influence to get insider information on another investigation into whether he received illegal funding for his 2007 election campaign from former Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi.

Speaking to Europe 1 and TF1 television Wednesday, Sarkozy suggested that the latest legal developments were part of a political conspiracy against him.

"In our country, which is the country of human rights and the rule of law, there are things that are being organised," Sarkozy said. "The French need to know what they are and, in conscience and freedom, judge what to make of it."

He said he was "deeply shocked" by the charges, adding that "everything is being done to give me an image that is not truthful."

"The time has come to explain, to have my say," Sarkozy said.

Sarkozy blasts phone taps

On Tuesday, following the 14-hour police questioning, two French judges placed Sarkozy under formal investigation over the allegations, which stemmed from phone taps placed on the former president from September 2013, specifically conversations recorded in January and February 2014.

At that time, two French judges were investigating whether Sarkozy received illegal funding for his 2007 election campaign from the Gaddafi family.

Telephone intercepts – including part of a transcript published by French investigative website Mediapart in March 2014 – revealed Sarkozy used a second mobile phone and an assumed name, Paul Bismuth, during conversations with his lawyer Thierry Herzog.

Both men appeared to be informed about some of the ongoing legal cases against the former French head of state, including allegations that he solicited secret financing for his 2007 presidential campaign from France’s richest woman, L’Oréal heiress Liliane Bettencourt.

In his interview with Europe 1 radio and TF1 TV Wednesday, Sarkozy blasted the phone taps, noting they were illegal under French law.

“Is it normal that my most intimate conversations were tapped?” asked Sarkozy, maintaining that, "No one is above the law" but adding that it was important to remember "there is the presumption of innocence."

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