tuesday, 1º july of 2014

Former French President Sarkozy Held for Questioning

Corruption investigation

Former French President Sarkozy Held for Questioning

Nicolas Sarkozy, the former president of France, was detained on Tuesday for questioning by French anticorruption investigators, a serious new turn in a blossoming criminal inquiry that threatens his hopes of a political comeback.

Mr. Sarkozy, a conservative who was president from 2007 to 2012, has not been charged, but he can be held under French law for up to 48 hours to answer questions from prosecutors. Éliane Houlette, the national prosecutor in charge of financial corruption cases, said in a telephone interview that Mr. Sarkozy, 59, was detained for questioning at 8 a.m. She did not provide further details.

In the past, Mr. Sarkozy has denied any wrongdoing and characterized the investigation as politically motivated. An aide to Mr. Sarkozy declined to comment on Tuesday.

Depending on what investigators decide, Mr. Sarkozy can be released, be put under formal investigation as a suspect or be made a witness in the case, legal experts said.

The authorities are trying to establish whether Mr. Sarkozy, with the help of his lawyer, Thierry Herzog, tried to obtain information from a well-placed judge, Gilbert Azibert, about investigations ensnaring the former president, including an inquiry into the financing of his 2007 election campaign.

They are also reportedly investigating whether Mr. Sarkozy, Mr. Herzog and Judge Azibert plotted to reward the judge’s help in the case with a post in Monte Carlo. Mr. Sarkozy was detained a day after investigators questioned Mr. Herzog and two judges, including Judge Azibert.

A series of court cases and criminal investigations have followed Mr. Sarkozy since he left office in 2012, and expectations that he could run again for the presidency in 2017 have served to intensify interest in the man once called President Bling Bling because of his flamboyant personal style. Global interest in Mr. Sarkozy, who lost his re-election bid two years ago, has also been fanned by his wife, the singer and model Carla Bruni-Sarkozy.

In March, the French daily newspaper Le Monde reported on an operation in which the authorities had for a year been tapping the phones of Mr. Sarkozy, Mr. Herzog and two of Mr. Sarkozy’s former ministers. The phone-tapping was widely viewed as an unusually aggressive tactic in a country where the office of the presidency is revered as the embodiment of the nation.

Under French criminal law, influence-peddling, or abuse of power in seeking to gain a favorable decision from a public authority or administration, is punishable by five years in prison and a fine of as much as 500,000 euros, or $683,000. Other former French presidents have had run-ins with the law, including Jacques Chirac, who in late 2011 was given a suspended sentence after being convicted of embezzlement and misusing public funds when he was mayor of Paris.

But Mr. Sarkozy is the first former president in the history of the country to be detained and questioned in police custody.

Mr. Sarkozy also appears to be the first former president whose private conversations were monitored by investigators. The case has spurred lurid headlines and called into question whether the tapping of Mr. Herzog’s phone was a breach of attorney-client privilege.

The latest twist in the case could be devastating for Mr. Sarkozy’s hopes of a political comeback. And while the scandal has been damaging for Mr. Sarkozy and the right, it has also proved embarrassing for President François Hollande’s Socialist government, which initially sought to distance itself from the decision to turn to phone-tapping in the case. Government ministers, including the justice minister, Christiane Taubira, later acknowledged they were informed of the phone-tapping as early as February of this year.

The developments came at a time of upheaval in French politics, with the left and the right reeling from their own problems and the far-right party National Front celebrating a strong showing in this spring’s European parliamentary elections. Mr. Hollande’s government is weighed down by a sluggish economy, ideological dissension within its ranks and Mr. Hollande’s own record-low approval ratings. Mr. Sarkozy’s conservative party is in disarray as well, suffering from a number of scandals and the lack of a clear leader.

On Tuesday, some of Mr. Sarkozy’s supporters lashed out against what they termed the humiliating detention of a former president and accused the Socialist government of pushing the case in a bid to upend Mr. Sarkozy’s political ambitions. Jean-François Copé, former head of Mr. Sarkozy’s party, the Union for a Popular Movement, wrote on Twitter that Mr. Sarkozy was the victim of a “hate campaign.”

Among the accusations against Mr. Sarkozy is that in 2007 his presidential campaign received up to ¤50 million, or about $68 million, in illegal funds from Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, the Libyan leader.

Mr. Sarkozy has consistently denied any allegations of impropriety, and compared those who tapped his phones to the Stasi, the secret police in East Germany. He has said he received no financial support from Libya and has insisted that the accusations — made by former allies of Colonel Qaddafi and his sons — are politically motivated and derive from his role in orchestrating the international military intervention in Libya in 2011 that ultimately led to Colonel Qaddafi’s ouster.

Suspicions have also focused on Judge Azibert, who prosecutors suspect may have fed information to Mr. Sarkozy on the direction of the judicial proceedings against him. According to Le Monde, recorded conversations between the two men included a discussion of whether Mr. Sarkozy’s 2007 campaign received improper donations from Liliane Bettencourt, 91, the L’Oréal heiress and France’s richest woman. Evidence in that case has been used in another case in which Mr. Sarkozy has come under suspicion with regard to a $550 million government payout in 2008 to Bernard Tapie, a businessman with a murky past.

The investigation into breach of judicial secrecy and influence-peddling was opened amid suspicions that Judge Azibert was Mr. Sarkozy’s informant, according to Le Monde and government documents. In return for keeping the former president briefed, the French media reported, Judge Azibert suggested to Mr. Sarkozy that he would appreciate obtaining a post in Monaco.

(Published by The New York Times - July 1, 2014)

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