Ghost of Gaddafi coming back to haunt Sarkozy - with threat of prison term
The news that former French president Nicolas Sarkozy had been detained this week for questioning over allegations he received millions of euro in illegal election campaign funding from the late Muammar Gaddafi caused ripples not just in France, but also in Libya.
'Gaddafi's ghost looms large over Sarkozy' read the headline in one Libyan media outlet. Libyan social media buzzed with discussions over Sarkozy's role in the country before, during and after the 2011 uprising.
France was a key architect of the Nato-led intervention that year that helped tip the balance in favour of anti-Gaddafi forces. I remember seeing France cheered on the streets of Benghazi soon after the first airstrikes began. Within weeks, cafés and other businesses were named in honour of Sarkozy.
Seven years on, with Libya mired in a chaotic transition marked by bitter power struggles and militia conflict, sentiments towards 2011 and the role played by France are often far more ambivalent.
The Sarkozy probe that resulted in the former president's questioning this week is what Radio France International has dubbed potentially "the biggest scandal in France since the end of World War II".
It is also the Libya-related story that has received most attention in France since 2011 - far more than any documenting of the turmoil that followed in the years since the intervention. French media coverage of the case is raising questions, not just about alleged political corruption, but also Paris' role in the 2011 intervention, which ultimately led not only to the end of Gaddafi's 42-year dictatorship but also his death at the hands of rebel forces.
Investigators are probing claims that the Gaddafi regime provided funds totalling €50m to illegally finance Sarkozy's 2007 presidential campaign in which he beat his main challenger, the Socialist Party's Ségolène Royal, to replace Jacques Chirac.
It is alleged that some of the Libyan money was delivered directly to Sarkozy's office in leather briefcases. If the allegations are true, the funding received would be more than double the legal limit for political donations at the time and would also flout French laws regarding foreign financing and campaign transparency.
Back in spring 2011, in the days leading up to and after the UN Security Council resolution that mandated the Nato-led intervention, Gaddafi and his son Saif gave a series of interviews to foreign journalists in Tripoli in which they claimed they had supported Sarkozy's campaign. "It was because of me that he became president," a bitter Gaddafi - who just a couple of years before had been feted by Sarkozy during an official visit to Paris - told one reporter. "Mr Sarkozy cannot play with us forever," his son told 'Time' magazine. "He plays a very dirty game. And we can do the same thing with him. He should be very careful. We can reveal a lot of things. Secrets. He knows. He knows very well. So, the French should behave, or there is going to be a big fiasco in France."
Saif's current whereabouts are a matter of speculation - he was captured by rebels in late 2011 and held in the western Libyan town of Zintan for many years after that - as is the claim he plans to run for election in Libya in the future. But this week's developments could mean the "fiasco" he warned of could be about to unfold.
Ironically, Sarkozy was taken into police custody almost seven years to the day after the first French airstrikes were carried out in Libya. He was interrogated for 14 hours at a police station west of Paris and summoned again the following day for further questioning. He has denied all allegations. If the case goes to trial, Sarkozy could end up in jail.
The intrigue - which includes a colourful cast of characters - had been building for years before the French launched an inquiry in 2013. Investigative journalists at French outlet Mediapart obtained a document allegedly signed by Gaddafi's intelligence chief Abdullah Senussi showing that the Libyan leader had agreed to finance Sarkozy with €50m. Sarkozy claimed the document was forged. The case gained momentum after French-Lebanese businessman Ziad Takieddine told Mediapart that he had personally delivered suitcases stuffed with bundles of euro notes from Gaddafi.
Also key to the case are personal documents belonging to Shukri Ghanem - Libya's former oil minister who drowned in Vienna in 2012 - which allegedly refer to payments to Sarkozy.
Sarkozy has denounced the allegations against him as "monstrous" and "crazy" after he was placed under investigation this week. In a TV appearance, Sarkozy described Gaddafi as a "mad-man" whose "band of killers, crooks and mafiosi" were now trying to target him because of his role in toppling their regime. The ghosts of 2011 are restless.