Paris, France, Feb 7 – France’s rightwing Republicans party suffered a double blow Tuesday with former president Nicolas Sarkozy facing trial on charges of illegally financing his failed re-election bid, while more fake job allegations swirled around his ex-prime minister and presidential hopeful Francois Fillon.
The prosecution claims Sarkozy spent nearly double the legal limit of 22.5 million euros ($24 million) on his lavish 2012 campaign, using false billing from a public relations firm called Bygmalion.
A legal source said Tuesday that one of two investigating magistrates in charge of the case, Serge Tournaire, had decided on February 3 that the case should go to trial.
Sarkozy’s lawyer announced plans to appeal the decision.
Bygmalion charged 15.2 million euros in campaign events to Sarkozy’s rightwing party — which at the time was called the UMP, but has since been renamed the Republicans — instead of billing the president’s campaign.
The affair came to light in 2014 but investigators have yet to determine who ordered the fraud.
Sarkozy, who also lost an attempted comeback in the Republicans’ November presidential primary, told investigators last year he knew nothing about the billing and put the responsibility squarely on Bygmalion and the UMP.
Only one other president — Jacques Chirac — has been tried in France’s Fifth Republic, which was founded in 1958. He was given a two-year suspended jail term in 2011 over a fake job scandal.
– Fillon’s troubles –
Similar allegations have engulfed Sarkozy’s one-time political partner, Fillon, who is struggling to maintain his bid for the Elysee as the Republicans’ presidential candidate in this year’s election.
Fillon apologised on Monday for employing his wife over 15 years as an aide — which is legal — but continued to deny the more serious allegations that she barely worked for her average monthly salary of around 3,700 euros ($3,950).
But on Tuesday yet more allegations surfaced in the Canard Enchaine. the newspaper behind the original revelations, which published new claims that Fillon’s wife Penelope received 45,000 euros in severence pay at the end of two of her contracts.
Reacting to the latest allegations, Fillon accused the newspaper of printing “lies” and that its latest report “constitutes nothing new and has obvious errors.”
While opinion surveys show Fillon maintaining 58-62 percent support among rightwing voters, he has lost ground with the wider public to his main rivals, far-right leader Marine Le Pen and centrist ex-economy minister Emmanuel Macron.
– Failed comeback –
The right’s last president, Sarkozy, the son of a Hungarian immigrant, saw his image tarnished by a “bling-bling” reputation for his flashy displays of wealth.
His trial will focus on whether he himself caused the over-spending in 2012 by demanding that additional rallies be organised towards the end of his campaign, even though they were bound to blow the budget.
The judicial source said he was accused of having ignored two warnings from advisors in March and April 2012 about his spending, which came to “at least 42.8 million euros”.
The divisive 62-year-old rightwinger faces up to a year in a prison and a fine of 3,750 euros if convicted.
He could yet be spared trial, however, given that the second investigating magistrate in the case disagreed that Sarkozy be put in the dock.
Thirteen other people face trial alongside him on charges ranging from fraud to illegal campaign financing, including Bygmalion’s management and Jerome Lavrilleux, Sarkozy’s deputy campaign manager.
Lavrilleux and Bygmalion executives have acknowledged the existence of fraud and false accounting.
– Mass rallies –
While the so-called Bygmalion case is the most pressing, Sarkozy has been fighting legal problems on several fronts.
He is charged with corruption and influence peddling for allegedly offering to help a judge secure a plum retirement job in return for inside information on a different corruption probe against him.
He has also been accused by former members of Libyan dictator Moamer Kadhafi’s regime of accepting millions in cash towards his first presidential campaign in 2007 from Kadhafi — claims he has vehemently denied.
After retiring from politics following his 2012 defeat by the Socialist Party’s Francois Hollande, he returned to take the helm of the Republicans and lost the party’s presidential nod in this year’s election to Fillon.