Former President Nicolas Sarkozy was engulfed in multiple accusations of campaign spending fraud today, three days after he claimed a “come-back” triumph in French local elections.
Mr Sarkozy, 60, was questioned for more than three hours by magistrates investigating the circumstances in which his centre-right party paid a Euros 360,000 personal fine imposed on him when he breached legal limits on campaign spending in 2012.
In a potentially far more serious development, three of the leading figures in Mr Sarkozy’s failed re-election team were arrested for questioning yesterday about an alleged conspiracy to fake his campaign accounts.
The trio include Mr Sarkozy’s campaign manager and his campaign treasurer. They face possible charges that that they concealed Euros 18.5m in bills, allowing the former President to spend almost twice as much as his rivals.
In the first case, two investigating magistrates declared Mr Sarkozy to be a “material witness” – neither a suspect nor completely in the clear. In the second, more serious case, the magistrates are expected to grill the former President, in the next few weeks. He denies all knowledge of the fraud.
Mr Sarkozy is already the most investigated former President in modern French history. He was formally accused by another team of investigating magistrates last July of “corruption” for allegedly trying to bribe a senior judge to obtain information and influence on other cases in which his name appears.
At the weekend, the local election success of his centre-right party, the Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP) seemed to put Mr Sarkozy on track to set another record. He plans to be the first ousted president of the Fifth Republic (post-1958) to run again.
However, his chances of winning the centre-right presidential “nomination” for 2017 in a primary election in autumn next year are now hostage to his legal problems.
Mr Sarkozy and his supporters insist that a cat’s cradle of criminal investigations– a dozen, including accusations against his close friends and associates - has been concocted by his political enemies and especially by President Francois Hollande.
In pictures: Nicolas Sarkozy through the decades
In pictures: Nicolas Sarkozy through the decades
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Nicolas Sarkozy looks on before the meeting with King Juan Carlos of Spain at the Zarzuela Palace on 27 May 2014 in Madrid
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Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy leaves 'La Petite Maison' in Nice, southeastern France, on 27 September 2013 after a private conference in Cannes
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France's outgoing president Nicolas Sarkozy shakes hands with France's president-elect Francois Hollande, next to France's outgoing First Lady as they are about to leave the Elysee presidential Palace after the formal investiture ceremony between Francois Hollande and his predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy, on 15 May 2012 in Paris
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President and right-wing ruling party Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) candidate for the French 2012 presidential election Nicolas Sarkozy gives a speech during a campaign meeting in Saint-Pierre in the French overseas island of La Reunion, on 4 April 2012
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Former France's president Nicolas Sarkozy and his wife Carla Bruni-Sarkozy leave the Elysee presidential Palace after the formal investiture ceremony between France's president-elect Francois Hollande and his predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy on 15 May 2012 in Paris
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French Interior Minister and leader of the French ruling Conservative party UMP (Union for a Polpular Movement) Nicolas Sarkozy greets British Conservative party leader, David Cameron prior to a meeting in Paris on 6 January 2006
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French interior minister and powerful head of the ruling UMP party Nicolas Sarkozy pronounces a statement in the high chamber of French Parliament focused on his general policy on 8 June 2005 in Paris, few days after his return to government office
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Nicolas Sarkozy in Brussels on 3 May 2004
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Nicolas Sarkozy, then minister of Interior and French President Jacques Chirac at Elysee palace in Paris on 10 May 2002
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Nicolas Sarkozy, head of the neo-Gaullist Rally for the Republic (RPR), waves during a rally in Dijon on 4 June 1999 ahead of the 13 June European elections
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Nicolas Sarkozy in campaign for the Legislatives of 1986
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Nicolas Sarkozy participates in a demonstration in Paris, 14 April 1976
There is no evidence of such ae conspiracy. Investigating magistrates in France are independent of the government. All the accusations of campaign spending irregularities have come from independent watch-dogs or from within Mr Sarkozy’s UMP party.
The former President’s main rival for the centre-right nomination for 2017, the former Prime Minister Alan Juppé, was asked about Mr Sarkozy’s difficuties in a radio interview yesterday. He replied: “ I hope, with all my heart, that he can prove his innocence.
The accusation of “fraud” in the payment of Mr Sarkozy’s steep electoral fine by the UMP is, arguably, a minor offence. The basic facts are not disputed.
Mr Sarkozy refunded the Euros 363,615 fine to the party when he ended his self-imposed “retirement” and returned as leader last September. He also refunded a second Euros 153,000 penalty imposed by the campaign watchdog and originally settled by the perennially cash-strapped UMP.
The penalties were imposed, on Mr Sarkozy personally, for a relatively modest Euros 1.6 m breach of the Euros 22.5m legal ceiling on spending by presidential candidates in 2012. The former president of the UMP, Jean-Francois Copé, has already been “mis en examen” or placed under investigation, for “fraud” for allowing the personal penalties to be paid from party funds.
Mr Sarkozy insists that he was advised in 2013 by his lawyers, and by the Socialist-run finance ministry, that it was legal for the party to pay on his behalf. After three hours of questioning yesterday, the two magistrates investigating the case gave him the benefit of the doubt – for the time being.
The second accusation is far more serious. It is alleged that the Sarkozy 2012 campaign accounts were systematically faked to conceal over-spending of Euros 18.5m – busting the legal ceiling by around 90 per cent. The former President denies all knowledge of this scam and has not yet been questioned on the subject.
It is alleged that the bills for dozens of large Sarkozy campaign events were paid secretly by the party and not declared to the official campaign financing watchdog. A senior UMP official revealed in a tearful TV appearance last September that fictitious invoices had been issued to a company called Bygmalion, run by former party officials.
Seven people have already been “mis en examen” or formally accused of forgery and fraud. Several have already admitted the facts.
Mr Sarkozy’s 2012 campaign manager, Guillaume Lambert, his treasurer Philippe Briand, and the UMP’s lawyer, Philippe Blanchetier, were questioned under arrest for many hours yesterday on the so-called “Bgymalion affair” .
Of all the investigations directly indirectly involving Mr Sarkozy, this case is potentially the most destructive to his hopes of returning to the Elysee Palace. The formal accusation last July that he tried to bribe a senior judge with the offer of a cushy retirement job could also wreck his come-back.
Mr Sarkozy, who denies this accusation, has asked for the accusation to be ruled illegal because his telephone was bugged by investigating judges. A ruling on this challenge is expected from France’s highest appeal court in early May.