Former president Nicolas Sarkozy has been placed under formal investigation on suspicion of trying to thwart an investigation into his 2007 election campaign, France’s prosecutor’s office said.
The step, which does not always lead to trial, is a major setback to the right-wing politician’s hopes of a comeback after his 2012 defeat by socialist rival François Hollande.
The 59-year-old denies all wrongdoing in a series of investigations. Last night he claimed the legal system was being used for political means.
“The situation is sufficiently serious to tell the French people where we stand on the political exploitation of part of the legal system today,” Mr Sarkozy told Europe 1 radio. “I have never committed an act against the Republic’s principles and rule of law.”
Magistrates are looking to see whether he used his influence to secure leaked details of an inquiry into alleged irregularities in his victorious 2007 campaign.
He is suspected of influence-peddling, corruption and benefiting from “the breach of professional secrets”, the prosecutor’s office said.
Mr Sarkozy was held in police custody in the Paris suburb of Nanterre for nearly 15 hours before being transferred in the early hours yesterday to a court before investigating magistrates.
His attorney and a judge involved in the case were similarly placed under formal investigation, their lawyers said.
“These events only rely on phone taps… whose legal basis will be strongly contested,” said Paul-Albert Iweins, spokesman for Mr Sarkozy’s lawyer Thierry Herzog.
Meanwhile Mr Sarkozy’s allies accused one of the investigating magistrates of bias.
“I question the impartiality of one of the judges,” Christian Estrosi, mayor of Nice, said on radio, accusing Mr Hollande’s government of having whipped up “an atmosphere of hate”.
In response, prime minister Manuel Valls dismissed allegations of political interference.
Placing a suspect under formal investigation means there exists “serious or consistent evidence” pointing to probable implication in a crime. Influence-peddling can be punished by up to five years in prison and corruption carries a sentence of up to ten years.
It is the second time the famously abrasive ex-president has been placed under such a judicial probe since leaving office and losing immunity in 2012.
The first was in 2013 but magistrates later dropped the case.There are six legal cases hanging over his head, a shadow that many in his UMP party believe compromises his ability to mount a comeback in 2017.
In the current investigation, magistrates will seek to establish whether Mr Sarkozy tried to get a judge promoted to the bench in Monaco in exchange for information on inquiries into his 2007 campaign finances.
Investigators began to suspect he had been tipped off while using phone-taps as they investigated claims the late Libyan leader Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi gave to his campaign.
Their suspicions prompted police to launch an inquiry in February, which led to yesterday’s formal investigation. Under French law, a suspect is not technically charged with a crime until later in the investigative process.
Mr Sarkozy said last week he was “in a period of reflection” on a comeback, expected to be announced before a gathering of the UMP to choose its next chairman in November.