Nicolas Sarkozy braced for legal storms as presidential immunity runs out

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Paris

The former French President Nicolas Sarkozy has officially given up politics.

He is said to be reluctant to return to his former career as a lawyer, but within days he may be directly entangled in at least two legal cases involving alleged illicit funding of his rise to power.

In just over a week, Mr Sarkozy will lose the immunity from prosecution – and even from questioning – that is granted to French presidents while in office. The former President's name appears in two judicial inquiries and one media accusation about illegal campaign funding going back as far as 1995.

One of the investigations – into the financing of Mr Sarkozy's 2007 presidential campaign by the L'Oréal heiress Liliane Bettencourt – has been creeping closer to the former president in recent days. He may face the embarrassment of being questioned before the end of the month by the misleadingly named magistrate Jean-Michel Gentil ("Judge Nice").

The two other Sarkozy "scandals"appear less likely to cause him sleepless nights.

J'accuse... three scandals

Liliane Bettencourt

Of all the allegations swirling around the ex-President, this appears the least grave but it could cause Mr Sarkozy the most trouble.

The problems could start in a closed judicial hearing in judge's chambers in Bordeaux today. Judge Jean-Michel Gentil, the examining magistrate in charge of the political aspects of the "Bettencourt Affair", will bring together witnesses who have given radically different pro- and anti-Sarkozy testimony.

The key figure is Patrice de Maistre, who was once the manager of the personal fortune of Lilliane Bettencourt, France's richest woman. Mr de Maistre, 63, has been held in custody for more than two months – a staggering period even for France – for questioning on his part in the alleged illegal financing of Mr Sarkozy's first successful presidential campaign five years ago.

Testimony by a Swiss lawyer and members of Ms Bettencourt's entourage, as well as entries in a diary seized by the investigating judge, point to the possibility of cash payments of at least €400,000 (£323,000) between January and April 2007. Mr de Maistre has repeatedly denied the cash was paid to Mr Sarkozy's campaign.

Today Mr de Maistre will be "confronted" with the former Bettencourt employees who say otherwise. Next Thursday, he will be confronted by the Swiss lawyer who says that he organised the payments in cash to Mr de Maistre from Bettencourt accounts.

Judge Gentil is expected to call Mr Sarkozy for questioning by the end of this month. The outcome of Mr de Maistre's confrontations with witnesses may decide whether the former President will be "mis en examen" or placed under formal investigation.

Karachi affair

Considerable evidence has emerged that secret kickbacks on French arms sales to Saudi Arabia and Pakistan helped to fund Edouard Balladur's failed 1994-95 presidential campaign. Mr Sarkozy was Mr Balladur's campaign spokesman at the time.

President Jacques Chirac later froze commissions to Pakistan. French magistrates believe a bomb attack in Karachi in May 2002, in which 11 French submarine engineers died, was carried out by Pakistani intelligence in retaliation.

Libyan connection

Just before this spring's presidential election the left-leaning website Mediapart alleged that the former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi had "agreed in principle" to pay €50m (£40m) to Mr Sarkozy's 2007 campaign.

The website published a document in Arabic, signed by Moussa Koussa, Gaddafi's former spy chief. The authenticity of the document is disputed. No official investigation is contemplated, but this may be the first of the "Sarkozy scandals" to come to court.

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