Nicolas Sarkozy 'held for questioning' by police: Former French President condemns ‘Stasi’ tactics behind his arrest

Anti-corruption police act over claims he perverted the course of justice, precluding any likelihood of a political comeback

Paris

France is in shock after Nicolas Sarkozy became the first former French President to be detained for questioning by anti-corruption police, threatening a widely anticipated political comeback.

Mr Sarkozy has been accused of multiple illegal dealings, mostly linked to the financing of his 2007 and 2012 election campaigns, and has so far escaped conviction. But this is the most serious case against him as it concerns the possible perversion of justice. His detention comes as he was considering a return to frontline politics ahead of the next presidential elections in 2017.

The former President, 59, turned himself in at the police unit headquarters in Nanterre, outside Paris, this morning where he was placed under arrest for alleged influence-peddling. Mr Sarkozy defended himself because his lawyer, Thierry Herzog, was arrested on Monday along with two senior judges.

The former President and his lawyer are suspected of illegally cultivating a network of informants within France’s top court, the Cour de Cassation, and the police.

Mr Sarkozy is accused of promising one of the magistrates, Gilbert Azibert, a prestigious job in Monaco in return for information that could help his defence in a case in which he was accused of abuse of frailty by allegedly soliciting money from L’Oréal heiress Liliane Bettencourt. The preliminary criminal charges against Mr Sarkozy in that case were dropped by a Bordeaux court last October.

The alleged influence-peddling and establishment of a network of informants came to light during phone-tapping by police who were investigating allegations that Mr Sarkozy sought €50m from the Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi,  for his 2007 election campaign, which the former President denies. The online newspaper Médiapart published details of wiretaps in March in which the ex-head of state, using the fake identity of Paul Bismuth on a mobile phone, seemed to be aware of forthcoming legal action in connection with the Bettencourt case. In one taped conversation, according to Médiapart, his lawyer is heard telling Mr Sarkozy: “I’ll call my correspondent because they have to go through him.”

Mr Sarkozy has proclaimed his innocence and compared the phone taps to operations by the Stasi in former East Germany.

Investigating magistrates were expected to organise a face-to-face encounter of the four suspects in Nanterre. Mr Azibert’s lawyer Jose Allegrini said that the police questioning was “polite” but he complained about the undignified treatment of his client, a senior attorney-general with the Cour de Cassation who was “bundled off at dawn” after being arrested at his home in Bordeaux. The other judge, Patrick Sassouste, also with the Cour de Cassation, was arrested in Paris.

Mr Sarkozy’s supporters in his centre-right UMP party mobilised to denounce his arrest as a witch-hunt, and several noted that he had been “cleared” in connection with the Bettencourt case. Others pointed to the suspicious coincidence inquiries were opened on the former President every time he was rumoured to be about to make a political comeback. The government “doesn’t go after delinquents with the same zeal as this,” said Daniel Fasquelle, a parliamentary deputy.

But support from heavyweights in the UMP was muted. They blame him for practically bankrupting the party which received a hefty fine for overspending in 2012. Stéphane le Foll, the Socialist government spokesman, told iTélé that “justice is investigating and must follow its course. Sarkozy is answerable just like anyone else.”

Under French law, the former President, who no longer has immunity from prosecution, can be held for a maximum 48 hours after which he must be set free or charged. Active influence peddling carries a 10-year jail penalty and a €1m fine.

Mr Sarkozy, who has irritated some in his party for allowing aides to hint of a return without following through, had let it be known that he would decide over the summer whether to launch a bid to return as party leader. There has been talk of the UMP reinventing itself under a new name following the forced resignation of it leader Jean-François Copé last month. He stepped down amid a scandal over inflated invoices from a communications agency, apparently used for Sarkozy’s campaign financing in 2012, and is expected to be questioned.

At the very least Mr Sarkozy’s reputation has been severely tarnished by his detention. His puppet, renamed Paul Bismuth, regularly appears on a daily satirical television show, Les Guignols de l’info which will have plenty more material with which to poke fun at him after today’s dramatic events.

The leader of the UMP parliamentary group, Christian Jacob, said he was convinced that the former President “will come out with his head held high after this experience”. But Mr Sarkozy’s former Prime Minister, François Fillon, confided to French media that “Sarkozy will never come back, because of the scandals”.

Q&A: The police case

Q. Why has Nicolas Sarkozy been detained?

A. He is accused of allegedly offering a judicial post in Monaco to a senior judge for information about a case in which he was implicated. Police are investigating whether he and his lawyer had a network of informers inside France’s top court.

Q. What happens next?

A. Anti-corruption police could hold him until Wednesday morning, after which he must be set free or placed under formal investigation. He is likely to be receiving VIP treatment at the police headquarters in Nanterre, and will have been held in an office, not a police cell. But his mobile phone should  have been confiscated and he would have been searched.

Q. Is he the first former French president to be detained?

A. Yes, although Jacques Chirac was previously found guilty of embezzlement, abuse of trust and illegal conflict of interest in 2011, for which he received a two-year suspended sentence.

Q. What are the implications?

A. The immediate implications are political, as his enemies within his party are numerous. He remains popular with the grass roots, who want him to return as president in 2017, but his possible return as party leader may be difficult. If he is charged and convicted, that would be the end of his political career.

Anne Penketh

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