PARIS, France — On Tuesday morning, Nicolas Sarkozy became the first former French head of state formally held in police custody, facing tough questions that may snuff his heavily advertised pretensions to regain power in 2017. After 15 hours of grueling interrogations, he was brought before judges and placed under formal investigation. The most serious of the three charges the former French president faces, “active corruption,” carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison.
Meanwhile, local TV news channels are wading through uncharted lesser questions: For one, do detained ex-presidents get to keep their shoelaces when they're in jail?
Sarkozy had responded to an early-morning summons Tuesday, rolling up to judicial police headquarters in suburban Nanterre in the backseat of a black Citroën with tinted windows. He was detained for questioning on suspicion of influence trafficking and breach of judicial secrecy in a relatively recent case at the confluence of several other scandals that have already compromised his comeback hopes.
French media in March revealed intercepts of Sarkozy conversations with his longtime lawyer, Thierry Herzog. Those phone taps suggested the pair may have co-opted a judge for insider information. At the time the news broke, Sarkozy lashed out, likening France under his successor, François Hollande, to East Germany’s police state (despite Sarkozy’s own well-documented, decade-long role in bolstering France’s legal surveillance arsenal).
The intercepts had initially been ordered by judges investigating a claim that Sarkozy’s 2007 presidential campaign had accepted up to 50 million euros in illegal financing from Libya’s Col. Muammar Gaddafi. However, the tapped confabs gave investigators an inadvertent window on apparently shady dealings of an entirely different nature.
Allegedly, Sarkozy and Herzog were heard suggesting they were inclined to help a judge nearing retirement, Gilbert Azibert, to secure a plush posting in Monaco in exchange for updates on (or even meddling in) a legal decision about whether Sarkozy’s presidential diaries, seized in another complex campaign financing case known as the Bettencourt Affair, would be admissible in court. Initial charges against Sarkozy in that tentacular Bettencourt case had been dropped. But the diaries’ admissibility was also seen as potentially incriminating in yet another case, the Tapie Affair.
In that case, Bernard Tapie, a businessman close to Sarkozy, received a controversial 400 million euro payout in 2008 to settle a longstanding dispute with the French state. Sarkozy is suspected of having intervened in his pal’s favor, at great public expense, an accusation he has consistently denied. But his presidential datebooks reportedly show that Tapie visited the Elysée Palace no fewer than 22 times during a critical period in that case, 2007 and 2008, and that Tapie met with the president himself on four of those occasions.
Moreover, the intercepted recent conversations revealed in March were culled from a secret second cell line contracted for Sarkozy under the assumed name Paul Bismuth. On that secret line, the former president is heard suggesting he knows his regular cellphone has been tapped. According to leaked excerpts, Sarkozy is heard asking his lawyer, surreally, to call back on his official phone to “give the impression of having a conversation.”
How Sarkozy could have learned investigators tapped his primary phone is also a topic for questions Tuesday.
Herzog, Azibert, and a second judge were already taken into police custody on Monday. Sarkozy can be held 24 hours, renewable once for a second 24-hour stretch. After that time, he may be either released or brought before an investigating judge who can present charges.
The ex-president’s unprecedented detention has his conservative supporters crying foul. “Every time Sarkozy alludes to a possible return to power, amazingly, he is troubled by a new judicial affair that immediately falls flat,” Valérie Debord, a top executive of Sarkozy’s Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) party, told France’s BFM news channel.
Similarly, another UMP exec, Sébastien Huyghe, quipped to the i-Télé channel, “The coincidence is striking.” One conservative has even called for Sarkozy to be “liberated” and for supporters to hold a “big demonstration” tomorrow to protest what he calls “illegal arbitrariness.”
But the electioneering insinuations are a quick and dirty causal leap. In fact, Sarkozy has been floating comeback aspirations virtually since he left office in May 2012, when he lost his re-election bid to François Hollande.
Sarkozy’s presidential immunity from prosecution lapsed a month after that defeat, unleashing a flurry of questions from investigators in a backlog of dossiers held up while Sarkozy held power. Within weeks, his office and the home he shares with popstar wife Carla Bruni had been searched in the Bettencourt Affair. Two years on, Sarkozy and/or his close associates are still bogged down by at least six unresolved scandals.
In any event, Sarkozy supporters are correct to surmise that his detention is bad timing for the comeback bid.
Sarkozy’s latest mooted road to power had him vying for the leadership of the UMP. That role freed up in June after party leader Jean-François Copé was forced to step down in the midst of yet another campaign financing scandal known as the Bygmalion Affair, about which an official fraud investigation was opened last Friday.
In that scandal, millions of euros in illegal overspending on Sarkozy’s 2012 campaign are thought to have been concealed through a complex system of shady accounting. The investigative news website Mediapart has put the hidden-expenses count as high as 17 million euros above the legal limit for a French campaign, which is pegged at 22.5 million euros.
As who-knew-what-when questions rattle around still to be answered—and the UMP struggles to take advantage of the hysterically unpopular Socialist Hollande’s presidency—the conservative party is due to elect a new leader in November.
Whether Sarkozy can throw his hat in the ring then is an open question. First he might need his shoelaces back.
UPDATE: After 15 hours in police custody, former French President Nicolas Sarkozy was brought before judges in the small hours of Wednesday in Paris and placed under formal investigation. The most serious of the three charges the former French president faces, active corruption, carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison.