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Sarkozy a step closer to facing trial over campaign finance scandal

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Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy moved a step closer to facing trial over campaign funding irregularities on Thursday when a court rejected a defense request to halt proceedings against one of 14 suspects in the case.

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A Paris appeal court threw out a request from the defence to drop the case against Guillaume Lambert, the director of Sarkozy's unsuccessful 2012 re-election campaign, in a move that lawyers said likely removes the last obstacle to the case going to trial.

Sarkozy may thus be facing time in court over suspicions that his campaign purposefully exceeded legal spending limits.

The case focuses on the Bygmalion public relations firm, which organised some of Sarkozy's campaign appearances. Bygmalion allegedly charged Sarkozy's party €18.5 million ($19.3 million) for services rendered instead of billing the president's campaign directly, which is standard practice.

As a result, the prosecution says, the campaign was able to exceed the legal spending limit of €22.5 million.

Bygmalion executives have acknowledged instances of fraud and false billing, but no-one has directly accused Sarkozy of knowing about the charges or making the billing decisions.

Lambert has told police that he warned Sarkozy of the risk of breaching financing limits.

Questioned by police in September 2015, Sarkozy said he did not recall Lambert's warning and described the controversy as a "farce", putting the responsibility squarely on Bygmalion and his party, at the time known as the UMP but since renamed Les Républicains.

Sarkozy was questioned again in February and placed under formal investigation for "suspected illegal financing of an election campaign".

While the financing case is his most pressing legal challenge, Sarkozy, 61, has been fighting legal problems on several fronts.

He was cleared in October 2013 of accepting campaign donations from France's richest woman, L'Oréal heiress Liliane Bettencourt, when she was deemed too ill and frail to understand what she was doing. Investigators suspected that up to €4 million of Bettencourt's cash had made its way into UMP party coffers.

Sarkozy was also accused in April 2012 of agreeing to accept €50 million from Libya's former leader Muammar Gaddafi to put toward his 2007 presidential campaign.

Sarkozy was nicknamed the "bling-bling president" for his flashy displays of wealth during his time in office, demonstrations that many felt were unbefitting the resident of the Elysée Palace.

Sarkozy was eliminated in the first round of a right-wing primary contest ahead of presidential elections next year, trailing far behind former prime ministers François Fillon and Alain Juppé. Fillon won the second round a week later to become Les Républicain's candidate for the April 2017 vote.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

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