Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy was on Wednesday night charged over a probe into whether his 2007 election campaign received £42 million in illegal funding from the Libyan regime of Muammar Gaddafi.
In a bombshell for French politics, investigating magistrates in the Paris suburb of Nanterre said they were placing Mr Sarkozy, 63, under what is known as formal investigation in France for passive corruption, illegal electoral campaign funding, and – most damning of all – concealing Libyan public funds.
The judges had quizzed the former conservative French leader for 15 hours on Tuesday and all day Wednesday over claims that Mr Sarkozy’s campaign had breached France’s strict political financing rules by accepting money from Gaddafi.
According to BFM TV, two of the charges carry maximum sentences of ten years in prison and €150,000 fines.
Mr Sarkozy denies all charges.
The investigation first emerged in a 2012 report by news website Mediapart.
Ziad Takieddine, a French-Lebanese arms dealer who introduced Mr Sarkozy to Gaddafi, told Mediapart in 2016 that he had carried three suitcases stuffed with cash from Libya to Paris, personally handing over €5 million intended for Mr Sarkozy’s campaign to his then chief of staff – and later interior minister – Claude Guéant in 2006 and 2007.
Mr Guéant was charged in connection with the investigation earlier this year over a €500,000 bank transfer in 2008. He has denied accusations of money laundering and tax evasion and claimed the money came from the sale of two paintings.
After Mr Sarkozy was elected in 2007, he received Gaddafi with pomp in Paris, but later spearheaded international military action against his regime in 2011 along with David Cameron and Barack Obama, which led to the dictator being toppled and killed.
Since then, Mr Sarkozy’s aides and several suspects said to have acted as intermediaries between France and Libya have come under close scrutiny.
One suspect, Alexandre Djouhri, a French-Algerian businessman, was arrested at Heathrow Airport in January and is being held while a request for extradition to France is considered. Mr Djouhri has also denied wrongdoing.
Mr Sarkozy served only one term as president. Since losing his re-election bid in 2012, he has faced several corruption investigations. He consistently denied wrongdoing. While some charges were dropped, last year he was ordered to stand trial on charges of illegal overspending for his 2012 campaign.
In July 2014, Mr Sarkozy was quizzed about allegations that he attempted to influence senior judges to obtain inside information about legal proceedings against him.
Laurent Wauquiez, leader of Mr Sarkozy’s Right-wing Republicans party, said the marathon police questioning had been “useless and humiliating”.
The coup de theatre led Ségolène Royal, the Socialist candidate whom Mr Sarkozy defeated in 2007 to ask whether the campaign had been “fought on equal terms”.
While technically Sarkozy is under formal investigation, the term in France means that the investigating magistrate must have "serious and corroborating evidence" that a crime took place – meaning he is effectively facing preliminary charges.
According to Le Monde, the judges chose to bring in Mr Sarkozy for questioning after "several former dignitaries from the Gaddafi regime" allegedly provided fresh evidence to support claims of illicit funding.
These echo claims in 2012 by Abdallah Senoussi, Gaddafi’s former military intelligence chief before Libyan prosecutors. The notebooks of a former Libyan petrol minister also reportedly mentioned the alleged payments.
Bashir Saleh, who ran Libya’s sovereign wealth fund at the time, also claimed that Gaddafi financed Mr Sarkozy.
A lawyer for former Libyan prime minister Baghdadi Ali Al-Mahmoudi alleged that Mr Sarkozy had thanked Gaddafi copiously for the alleged fund transfers.
"My client declared having supervised the illicit funding operation of Sarkozy’s 2007 campaign via intermediaries in Geneva," lawyer Mehdi Bouaouaja told France 3 television.
"Sarkozy thanked Libyan authorities many times – officials of course, Gaddafi and his close entourage – for the funding," said the lawyer.
The charges came after French investigators in recent weeks reportedly gained access to documents belonging to Mr Djouri – an alleged middle man – seized in Switzerland in 2015.
Profile | Nicolas Sarkozy
Fabrice Arfi, the Mediapart journalist who first broke the story regarding the Libyan funding allegations, said that while Mr Sarkozy was presumed innocent, it was "unprecedented" in France for "a former head of state to be charged with having received a stipend from a foreign power".
"We’ve heard a lot about Russian involvement in America, well this is our equivalent and not with just any old leader but a terrible dictator," he told France Info.
Mr Arfi said that investigators’ suspicions about the amount of cash swilling about during Mr Sarkozy’s 2007 were aroused after learning that Mr Guéant had opened a safe in a Paris bank “big enough for a man to walk around in” and visited it seven times during the election race. When asked what it was for, he told them it was to keep “Mr Sarkozy’s speeches safe”.