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Saturday 30 August 2014

Nicolas Sarkozy arrested by anti-corruption police

Anne Penketh

Published 02/07/2014 | 02:30

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Former French President Nicolas was detained for questioning by anti-corruption police (AP Photo/Michel Euler)
Former French President Nicolas was detained for questioning by anti-corruption police (AP Photo/Michel Euler)
Lawyer Jose Allegrini, who represents French judge Gilbert Azibert, speaks to journalists outside the offices of the judicial police in Nanterre, near Paris. Police are conducting a criminal investigation regarding former French president Nicolas Sarkozy, his lawyer and two magistrates including Azibert. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier
Lawyer Jose Allegrini, who represents French judge Gilbert Azibert, speaks to journalists outside the offices of the judicial police in Nanterre, near Paris. Police are conducting a criminal investigation regarding former French president Nicolas Sarkozy, his lawyer and two magistrates including Azibert. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier

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

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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, yesterday 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'Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt. The preliminary criminal charges against Mr Sarkozy in that case were dropped 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 Mr Sarkozy denies.

The online newspaper 'Mediapart' 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 'Mediapart', Mr Azibert 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.

Treatment

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.

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. Stephane le Foll, the Socialist government spokesman, told iTélé that "justice is investigating and must follow its course. Sarkozy is answerable 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. (© Independent News Service)

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