Nicolas Sarkozy has been questioned by magistrates trying to establish whether he received illegal campaign funds from France’s richest woman when he ran for president in 2007.
It was the first time since losing the presidency – and the legal immunity that went with it – in May that Mr Sarkozy has been questioned about the scandal, which could poison any future comeback bid, something many conservatives are yearning for.
Hundreds of police officers stood guard yesterday as Mr Sarkozy, 57, arrived to face investigators for closed-door questioning at the Palais de Justice in Bordeaux, south-west France.
In one strand of a broader inquiry, magistrates are looking at €4 million (£3.2m) of cash withdrawals from the Swiss bank accounts of Liliane Bettencourt, ageing heiress of the L’Oréal cosmetics empire.
Under France’s electoral code, individual election campaign donations may not exceed €4,600 (£3,720) per person during political campaigns - and only €150 (£120) may be given in cash.
Mr Sarkozy denies any wrongdoing, but a drawn-out legal probe may taint him with suspicion that could damage his chances of running at the 2017 presidential election, which one recent poll showed 52 per cent of his party’s supporters would want.
That is two to three times more support than enjoyed by either of the two men fighting to succeed him, François Fillon and Jean-François Cope. An unseemly leadership squabble between them has deepened ideological rifts inside the centre-right UMP.
As part of the inquiry into financial relations with Ms Bettencourt, police raided Mr Sarkozy’s Paris residence and offices in July.
Investigating magistrate Jean-Michel Gentil could decide, following his first question session, whether to put Mr Sarkozy under judicial investigation.
Such investigations do not always lead to trial and can take years to conclude.
Initial suspicions were fuelled three years ago when a woman who worked as an accountant for the mentally frail Ms Bettencourt, 90, alleged a large cash withdrawal had been earmarked for Mr Sarkozy’s campaign.
The Bettencourt affair is not the only cloud on the horizon. Lawyers are also demanding Mr Sarkozy explain two other cases, one concerning a submarine sale to Pakistan and another concerning lavish spending on opinion polls by his office when he was president.
Since his election defeat to left-winger François Hollande – which pushed the UMP into opposition after a decade in power – Mr Sarkozy has becomes a star conference speaker.
Former judge and Green Party presidential candidate Eva Joly said there was so much evidence against Mr Sarkozy that he should have waived his immunity while still in office.
She said: “We now have proof of illicit financing of Sarkozy’s campaign in 2007 and that is very serious for democracy.”
His predecessor, Jacques Chirac, also hid behind presidential immunity until he left office in 2007. He was called before judges two months later and became the first post-war French president to appear in court on criminal charges.
Chirac was convicted of breach of trust and embezzlement for giving fake jobs to cronies as mayor of Paris, and handed a two-year suspended prison sentence.