Paris, France, Sep 5 – Prosecutors have recommended that French ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy stand trial over alleged illegal campaign financing, legal sources said Monday, in a potentially major blow to his bid for re-election next year.
The 61-year-old Sarkozy, who was president from 2007-2012, had seen his poll ratings rise recently after taking a hardline on Islam and immigration following a truck massacre in Nice in July which saw 86 people killed.
The campaign financing case, one of several investigations which have dogged Sarkozy since leaving office, involves allegedly false accounting used in 2012 to conceal campaign overspending by his office.
Sarkozy’s lawyer Thierry Herzog, reacting to news the prosecution had recommended a trial, dismissed the development as a “shoddy new political manoeuvre” that would not withstand scrutiny.
– Bad timing for Sarkozy –
“Two years of investigation have shown (Sarkozy’s) total lack of involvement” in the affair, Herzog said in a statement.
An investigating magistrate must now decide whether to order a trial, with a decision possible as early as the end of this month — just as the right-wing Republicans party is preparing to choose its presidential candidate.
Sarkozy’s chief rival in the Republican primaries, set for November 20 and 27, is 71-year-old former premier and Bordeaux mayor Alain Juppe, who is seen as a moderate.
The outcome of France’s election in April and May next year is seen as difficult to forecast.
Socialist President Francois Hollande, suffering historically low ratings due to high unemployment and a string of terror attacks, is yet to say if he will seek re-election.
Both the Socialists and the Republicans, France’s traditional parties, have seen support steadily eroded by the far-right National Front and they might also face challenges from independents, such as former economy minister Emmanuel Macron.
Sarkozy has positioned himself on the right of the Republican party and has waded into a recent heated national debate over the burkini, speaking out in favour of a short-lived ban on the Muslim body-concealing swimsuit.
The campaign financing case hinges on the activity of public relations firm Bygmalion, which organised some of Sarkozy’s campaign appearances in 2012 in his doomed bid for a second term.
– PR company in spotlight –
Bygmalion allegedly charged 18.5 million euros ($20.7 million) to Sarkozy’s party — then called the UMP, but since renamed The Republicans — instead of billing the president’s re-election campaign.
As a result, the campaign was able to greatly exceed a spending limit of 22.5 million euros, according to the prosecution.
There are 13 other potential defendants in the case including campaign officials and Bygmalion employees.
Bygmalion executives have acknowledged the existence of fraud and false billing, but no one has directly accused Sarkozy of having been aware or taken decisions about it.
However, the former president’s campaign director, Guillaume Lambert, has told police he warned Sarkozy of the risk of breaching financing limits.
Questioned by police in September 2015, Sarkozy said he did not remember the warning, and described the controversy as a “farce”, putting the responsibility squarely on Bygmalion and the UMP.
While the campaign financing case is currently the most pressing, Sarkozy has been fighting legal problems on several fronts.
He still faces accusations of conspiring with his lawyer to bribe a magistrate in exchange for inside information on a separate corruption probe.
In the most sensational case against him, Sarkozy was cleared in October 2013 of accepting campaign donations in 2007 from France’s richest woman, L’Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt, when she was too frail to know what she was doing.
The son of a Hungarian immigrant father, Sarkozy was nicknamed the “bling-bling” president for his flashy displays of wealth.
After his humiliating 2012 defeat by Hollande, Sarkozy famously promised that “you won’t hear about me anymore” before he embarked the international conference circuit.
Few observers were surprised though when he returned to frontline politics in 2014, standing for and winning the leadership of the then UMP.