PARIS — France's former president Nicolas Sarkozy has been charged with corruption and influence peddling, French prosecutors said on Wednesday, a dramatic move in a criminal probe that could wreck his hopes of a political comeback.
The decision came after Sarkozy was questioned for 15 hours, marking the first time a French ex-head of state had been taken into custody in a criminal investigation.
The right-wing leader had been detained at a police station in a Paris suburb in connection with a suspected attempt to illegally influence judicial proceedings in one of a raft of colourful corruption cases he is implicated in.
Sarkozy turned up at the station in Nanterre in a black saloon car with tinted windows at 8:00am (0600 GMT).
After the lengthy questioning, the former president was taken in the early hours of Wednesday to appear before a judge, where he was charged with corruption and influence peddling, the prosecution said in a statement.
If convicted of those charges, he could face a sentence of up to 10 years in prison.
Sarkozy's longtime lawyer Thierry Herzog and a magistrate, Gilbert Azibert – taken into custody a day earlier alongside another magistrate – were both charged with influence peddling in a late night court appearance, their respective lawyers said.
Investigators suspect Sarkozy attempted to obtain inside information from one of the magistrates about confidential proceedings in an illegal election financing case, and that he was tipped off by a senior figure when judges tapped his phones.
Sarkozy, 59, has faced virtually non-stop legal battles since he left office following his defeat by Socialist candidate Francois Hollande in the 2012 presidential vote.
He had been expected to attempt a political comeback in time for the next presidential poll in 2017, but those plans could be torpedoed after being charged in this case.
He vehemently denies any wrongdoing, and his allies on the right of the political spectrum denounced what they see as a witch-hunt against their man.
"Never before has a former president been subjected to such treatment, such an unleashing of hate," said Christian Estrosi, the mayor of Nice and an MP for Sarkozy's UMP party.
Government spokesman Stephane Le Foll insisted the judges in the case had acted of their own accord.
"The justice system is investigating and will follow this through to the end. Nicolas Sarkozy can face justice just like anyone else," Le Foll said.
Tip-off on phone tapping
The case was launched after judges looking into the alleged financing of Sarkozy's 2007 election campaign by former Libyan dictator Moamer Kadhafi obtained an unprecedented and controversial authorisation to tap the former president's phones.
After four fruitless months they discovered Sarkozy had a secret phone registered under an assumed name, and recordings from that device led to the opening of the influence peddling investigation.
At the root of the case are the allegations that Sarkozy was helped to victory in the 2007 election with up to 50 million euros ($70 million at the time) from Kadhafi and envelopes stuffed with cash from France's richest woman, L'Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt.
He dismisses the Kadhafi claims as ridiculous in light of his leading role in the dictator's 2011 overthrow, and he was cleared last year of taking Bettencourt's money when the elderly woman was too frail to know what she was doing.
His campaign treasurer is one of 10 people awaiting trial in the Bettencourt case.
The Kadhafi investigation is ongoing, as are several other cases in which Sarkozy has been implicated.
They include a long-running probe into allegations he helped organise kickbacks from a Pakistani arms deal before becoming president.
In the last month, Sarkozy has also been linked to a scandal over the funding of his campaign for re-election in 2012.
The leader of his UMP party was forced to resign after it emerged that 10 million euros ($13.6 million) spent in support of Sarkozy had been passed off as party expenses.
Sarkozy denies any knowledge or involvement in the apparent fraud, which is now subject to another criminal probe. — AFP