Nicolas Sarkozy in police custody over 'influence peddling' allegations

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For the first time under France's Fifth Republic a former president has been held in custody for questioning. On Tuesday morning Nicolas Sarkozy was summoned to the offices of the fraud squad at Nanterre, west of Paris, where he was formally placed in police custody for questioning over claims that he benefited from what is known as 'influence peddling'. In particular the judges and police carrying out the investigation want to know if Sarkozy sought confidential information from a senior judge about the Bettencourt affair, in return for helping him get a top job in Monaco. The questioning of the former president, which comes a day after his lawyer, the judge at the centre of the 'influence peddling' claims and another judge were also held for questioning, is bound to place doubts over his expected return to French politics. If the investigating judges consider there is enough evidence, Sarkozy could be placed under formal investigation, one step short of formal charges.

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Former president Nicolas Sarkozy was on Tuesday being held in police custody near Paris as part of a judge-led investigation into allegations of ‘influence peddling’ and ‘violation of the secrecy of an investigation’. It is the first time in the history of France's Fifth Republic that a former head of state has been questioned in police custody – the French term is 'garde à vue'. Sarkozy has been interviewed before, in the course of the Bettencourt affair, but on that occasion he was interviewed simply as a witness because the facts of the case occurred while he was head of state and he benefitted from immunity, though he was later placed under formal investigation before the case against him was dropped. In the current probe the alleged 'influence peddling' took place after he left office.

Early on Tuesday morning the former French head of state was driven in a dark car with tinted windows into the underground car park at the offices of the fraud squad the Office central de lutte contre la corruption et les infractions financières et fiscales (OCLCIFF) based at Nanterre, west of Paris, where he was then formally placed in custody and questioned by police officers.

Sarkozy's questioning by detectives follows that of three others on Monday, senior judge Gilbert Azibert, aged 67, Sarkozy's lawyer Thierry Herzog and Patrick Sassoust, the advocate general or state prosecutor at the criminal division of France's top appeal court the Cour de cassation – the Court of Cassation. All four men are being interviewed as part of an investigation by examining magistrates Patricia Simon and Claire Thépaut. The allegation is that through his lawyer, Herzog, Sarkozy tried to find out confidential information about the ongoing Bettencourt judicial saga from Azibert. In return it is alleged that Azibert wanted help in securing a top job in Monaco after his retirement from the French judiciary.

The investigation began in February after phone taps on Sarkozy's mobile phone in relation to another investigation – that of illegal Libyan funding of his 2007 presidential campaign – revealed potentially compromising conversations linking Herzog, Sarkozy and Azibert to information regarding the Bettencourt affair. The recorded conversations raised suggestions, indeed, that Sarkozy and his inner circle had a network of insiders inside the French Establishment who could relay information.

It is down to the examining magistrates to decide what happens at the end of the questioning period, which can last for a maximum of 48 hours. The former president could be brought before the judges themselves or simply let go. If he does appear before the magistrates, there are three possibilities as to his status. One could be that he is questioned by them simply as a witness. A second option is that he is interviewed as an 'assisted witness', a status unique to French law which implies some involvement in the facts of the crime but that there is not - as yet – strong evidence that they were guilty of a crime. The third possibility is to be placed under formal investigation – 'mis en examen' in French – which is one step short of being charged. For judges to put someone under formal investigation it means they consider they have 'serious and concordant' evidence that the person was involved in the crime.

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Under French law Nicolas Sarkozy has the right to legal representation during his questioning. However, the position is complicated in this case by the fact that his own lawyer, Thierry Herzog, is also being interviewed by detectives. It is understood that the former president, a former lawyer, has declined to call in the services of another expert and is defending himself.

If charged and convicted of 'influence peddling', the former president would face a prison term of up to five years and a fine of €500,000. Article 433-2 of the French criminal law code defines the offence as “the fact, by anyone, of seeking or agreeing to, at any time, directly or indirectly, offers, promises, gifts, presents or any benefits whatsoever, for themselves or for others, to abuse or to cause to be abused their real or supposed influence with the aim of obtaining from a [public] authority or a public administration honours, jobs, business or any other favourable decision”.

Inevitably the affair now raises serious questions about the political future of a man who was president from 2007 to 2012 when he was defeated by François Hollande, and who is widely thought to be planning to stand again at the 2017 presidential election. When in March 2013 Nicolas Sarkozy was placed under formal investigation in the Bettencourt affair – over claims he had taken advantage of L'Oréal heiress Liliane Bettencourt's mental frailty in order to get cash for his 2007 election campaign – it caused a political storm. His supporters accused the judge behind the decision, Jean-Michel Gentil, of hounding the politician and of being motivated by political considerations.

On Tuesday, following the news that he was being held in custody, there were similar claims from supporters in the right-wing UMP party that Sarkozy was being harassed by the judicial system, linking the move to reports that he might be a candidate to lead the crisis-torn party later this year. “Never has a former president had to put up with such an outpouring of hate,” tweeted the UMP mayor of Nice Christian Estrosi. An MP from the north of France, Sébastien Huyghe, said on Twitter: “All it needs is for it to be said that Nicolas Sarkozy might return in the autumn for judicial proceedings to start against him.”

Valérie Debord, an assistant director general at the UMP and former MP, claimed on BFM TV that “each time” Nicolas Sarkozy “mentioned his possible return to [politics], astonishingly he is hit by a new judicial affair which immediately melts away. It's true that it's starting to become wearisome for his supporters and I think it's starting to become wearisome for the French public too who, in this case, see a kind of abuse of the judicial process.”

However, the government's official spokesman Stéphane le Foll, speaking on i>Télé, dismissed claims of an abuse of legal process. “I have even been accused of being at the head of a dirty tricks unit...this saga...is first of all about facts,” said le Foll, who added that the judicial process should be allowed to continue “to its conclusion”. Meanwhile his colleague, labour minister François Rebsamen, said that with Sarkozy “one is used to the unprecedented”.

A different note was struck by MP and former examining magistrate Georges Fenech, from the UMP, who said the questioning of the former president at this time gave him a chance to put the matter behind him and “lance the abscess”. Urging Sarkozy to “keep a cool head”, Fenech said he was confident of the outcome of the proceedings, and warned colleagues on the Right not to criticise the judiciary. “The magistrates and the investigators should not be attacked. The only conclusions to be drawn are those that the judges themselves draw,” said the MP.

Rama Yade, from the centrist UDI party and a former minister under Nicolas Sarkozy, called for the former president's legal rights to be respected. “In terms of how a democracy works I expect two principles to be respected: the presumption of innocence and the independence of the justice system” she told France Info radio. “On the basis of these two principles a person, including a president of the Republic, can defend himself and the justice system can do its work.”

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