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France's outgoing President Nicolas Sarkozy has denied any wrongdoing in a raft of cases, but the conviction last year of his predecessor Jacques Chirac on graft charges has shown that French courts are now willing to go after former leaders. — Photo AFP

PARIS: Outgoing French leader Nicolas Sarkozy will face a slew of legal probes into corruption and campaign financing violations after he leaves office next week and loses his presidential immunity.

Sarkozy could face questioning as soon as mid-June as he will lose his immunity a month after his successor, Socialist Francois Hollande, is sworn in on May 15.

The outgoing leader has denied any wrongdoing in a raft of cases, but the conviction last year of his predecessor Jacques Chirac on graft charges has shown that French courts are now willing to go after former leaders.

“In the past the kind of behaviour that Nicolas Sarkozy is accused of was very common, but the courts did not launch prosecutions,” said Philippe Braud, a political analyst at the Paris-based Centre for Political Studies.

“Things have very much changed. The courts have become more courageous.” The most immediately dangerous case for Sarkozy involves a series of overlapping inquiries surrounding alleged illegal campaign financing by L'Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt, France’s richest woman.

Magistrates are investigating claims that Bettencourt's staff handed over envelopes stuffed with cash to Sarkozy aides to finance his 2007 campaign, with her former book-keeper testifying to one 50,000 euro donation.

Under France’s electoral code, individual election campaign contributions may not exceed 4,600 euros.

Sarkozy and his camp have also been accused of ordering an illegal police investigation to identify an official leaking information on the Bettencourt scandal to a journalist from the newspaper Le Monde.

Judges have charged both a prosecutor close to Sarkozy and the head of France’s domestic intelligence agency, Bernard Squarcini, with having illegally obtained the journalist’s mobile phone logs in 2010.

Another of the most high-profile cases has been the so-called “Karachi Affair”, in which two close aides to Sarkozy have been charged by judges investigating alleged kickbacks on a Pakistani arms deal.

This case dates back to Sarkozy’s time as budget minister, when he allegedly authorised the creation of a shell company used to channel kickbacks to then prime minister Edouard Balladur’s unsuccessful 1995 presidential bid.

And, in more serious but harder to prove allegations, magistrates are probing whether a 2002 Karachi bombing that killed 11 French engineers was revenge for the cancellation of bribes secretly promised to Pakistani officials.

Claims were also made during the campaign that former Libyan strongman Muammer Qaddafi's regime financed Sarkozy’s 2007 campaign to the tune of 50 million euros, but no investigation is known to have been opened.

Sarkozy has denounced that claim as “grotesque” and said he will sue French media website Mediapart over the reports.

The Socialists pounded Sarkozy over the scandals during the election campaign, with Segolene Royal, Sarkozy’s Socialist opponent in the 2007 race, saying he was desperate to hold on to office if only to dodge prosecution.

“He is afraid because he will lose his presidential immunity, and we all know the corruption problems that marred the last five years,” she said before the vote.

Sarkozy has said he plans to retire from politics but many suspect the 57-year-old may eventually seek to play a new political role after he has recovered from Sunday’s bruising defeat.

Braud said any criminal conviction would make that extremely difficult.

“If you love politics it is such an addiction that it's very rare to not think of one day coming back,” Braud said.

“But if he is prosecuted and convicted that would practically eliminate any chance of him returning to political life.” Chirac was called before investigators less than two months after he left office in 2007, on charges of breach of trust and embezzlement between 1990 and 1995, when as mayor of Paris he employed ghost workers.

He was found guilty and given a suspended jail sentence in December, becoming the first post-war French head of state to be convicted of criminal wrongdoing.


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