Nicolas Sarkozy has been placed under formal investigation on suspicion of so-called “influence peddling”, in a move that could wreck his chances of a political comeback.
Detectives want to know whether the former French president promised a top role to a high-ranking judge in return for inside information about an investigation into alleged illegal campaign funding.
Investigators are also looking into separate claims Mr Sarkozy was tipped off by a senior judge that his phone was being bugged as part of the funding probe.
In legal terms, being placed under formal investigation indicates there is “serious or consistent evidence pointing to probable implication of a suspect in a crime”.
The 59-year-old was detained for questioning at a police station in Paris.
It is the second time he has been the subject of an inquiry since he lost his right to legal immunity following his defeat by Francois Hollande in the 2012 presidential vote.
In 2013 Mr Sarkozy was formally investigated over “abuse of frailty”, in connection with an illegal party-financing case linked to France’s richest woman, Liliane Bettencourt.
He has strenuously denied any wrongdoing and his supporters have condemned what they claim is a political witch-hunt against him.
“Never before has a former president been subjected to such treatment, such an unleashing of hate,” said Christian Estrosi, the mayor of Nice and an MP for Mr Sarkozy’s UMP party.
Mr Sarkozy had been expected to attempt a political comeback for the 2017 election; plans which will be put in doubt if he is formally charged by French prosecutors.
At the root of the case are unrelated allegations he was helped to victory in the 2007 election with 50 million euros from former Libyan leader Colonel Gaddafi and cash donations from Ms Bettencourt.
The Gaddafi investigation is ongoing, as are several other cases in which Mr Sarkozy has been implicated… see more