Nicolas Sarkozy questioned over influence claims

Magistrates investigate if former French president had moles in French justice system

Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy: Under French law, he can be detained for 48 hours. Photograph: EPA/Ian Langsdon

Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy: Under French law, he can be detained for 48 hours. Photograph: EPA/Ian Langsdon

Wed, Jul 2, 2014, 01:01

Nicolas Sarkozy yesterday became the first former president in the history of France to be detained for questioning, in an investigation into alleged influence peddling involving Mr Sarkozy, his close friend and lawyer of 30 years, Thierry Herzog, and two judges from the Court of Cassation, France’s highest court.

In response to a summons from investigating magistrates Patricia Simon and Claire Thépaut, Mr Sarkozy arrived at the central office for the fight against corruption and financial and fiscal offences (OCLCIFF) in the Paris suburb of Nanterre just before 8am.

He entered the underground parking lot in a Citroen pursued by television cameramen on motorcycles.

Under French law, he can be detained for 48 hours. The investigating magistrates want to determine whether he and Mr Herzog established a network of moles within the French justice system to inform them of developments in cases against Mr Sarkozy.

Monaco position

More serious still, they want to know if judge Gilbert Azibert attempted to sway fellow members of the Court of Cassation on Mr Sarkozy’s behalf, in the hope of gaining a position on the Council of State in Monaco. In a side issue, the magistrates are also trying to ascertain who alerted Mr Sarkozy and Mr Herzog to the fact their telephones were tapped.

Messers Herzog and Azibert have been detained since Monday morning, along with Patrick Sassoust, who is a criminal judge at the Court of Cassation. The investigating magistrates wanted to prevent the four men communicating with each other and to organise “confrontations” in judges’ chambers, to tease out discrepancies in their stories.

Another judge, Éliane Houlette, opened the investigation for “influence peddling and violation of judiciary secrets” last February 26th, after the Mediapart website published transcripts of wire taps on the telephones of Mr Sarkozy, Mr Herzog and Mr Azibert.

The wire taps had been ordered by two other judges in another investigation, launched in April 2013, into whether the late Libyan dictator Muammar Gadafy financed Mr Sarkozy’s 2007 presidential election campaign.

As often happens in the half dozen legal and financial scandals involving Mr Sarkozy, action in one case reverberates in another. The telephone transcripts showed that Mr Sarkozy was anxious to know whether the Court of Cassation would return his diaries, which had been seized as evidence in the Bettencourt case, in which he was accused – and eventually cleared – of having abused the frailty of France’s richest woman to obtain millions of euro in campaign contributions.

Judges in still another investigation – into the €403 million settlement awarded to Mr Sarkozy’s friend, the businessman and ex-convict Bernard Tapie – asked that the diaries be retained as evidence in the Tapie case.

Despite alleged efforts by Messers Sarkozy, Herzog and Azibert to influence deliberations, the Court of Cassation ruled on March 11th that the diaries should not be returned.

Exerting influence

Influence peddling is punishable by five years in prison and a fine of up to €500,000. The criminal code defines it as “solliciting or accepting . . . offers, promises, gifts or other advantages for oneself or others in exchange for exerting one’s supposed or real influence . . .”

Mr Sarkozy hopes to become leader of the conservative UMP party at its congress in November. The last leader, Jean-Francois Copé, resigned on May 27th in the throes of the Bygmalion scandal, in which the UMP is accused of issuing €11 million in false invoices to cover excess expenses in Mr Sarkozy’s failed 2012 presidential campaign.

The government spokesman Stéphane Le Foll denied the ruling socialists are using the justice system to prevent Mr Sarkozy returning to politics. “Like any other citizen, Nicolas Sarkozy is answerable to the justice system,” he said.

Christian Estrosi, the mayor of Nice and a Sarkozy loyalist, said, “No other former president has ever been treated so badly, or been subjected to such an outburst of hatred.”

Mr Azibert, a civil judge, had told Mr Herzog, who was the conduit between Mr Azibert and Mr Sarkozy, that he convinced one of the criminal judges of the merits of Mr Sarkozy’s case. That judge was not previously identified, and there was speculation yesterday that Mr Sassoust, whose name has appeared in the case for the first time, may be the missing link.