PARIS – Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy was in police custody Tuesday, apparently under questioning in an investigation linked to allegations that he took $50 million in illegal campaign funds from Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi.
But will the shocking detention and sordid case torpedo Sarkozy’s chances at a presidential comeback?
Sarkozy, a political survivor who’s been touring the world with his pop singer wife, is still among the most popular politicians in France despite a pile of investigations that target him.
The 59-year-old hasn’t been convicted of anything and remains well-known on the international stage. And he may be his troubled conservative party’s best chance to regain the presidency in 2017, after losing it to Socialist Francois Hollande in 2012.
A judicial official said Sarkozy was detained for questioning Tuesday at the headquarters of the judicial police in the Paris suburb of Nanterre. The official, who was not authorized to be publicly named while discussing an ongoing investigation, would not elaborate. French police, prosecutors and other judicial officials would not provide any details.
Sarkozy could be held up to 24 hours, which could be extended for another day. After the questioning, he could be released without charge, named as a witness in the case or handed preliminary charges.
French media reports say Sarkozy is being questioned in an investigation linked to financing for his 2007 presidential campaign, notably allegations that late Libyan leader Gadhafi gave Sarkozy illegal campaign donations.
The French daily Le Monde, which has covered the case closely, says the questioning centers around whether Sarkozy and his lawyer, Thierry Herzog, were kept informed about the investigation by a friendly magistrate, Gilbert Azibert.
Herzog and Azibert were also held for questioning Tuesday.
Sarkozy and Herzog have denied wrongdoing. Azibert’s lawyer told reporters he hoped the detention would be over by the evening.
Investigators are basing suspicions at least in part on tapped phone conversations between Sarkozy and his lawyer. The tapping raised questions about the limits between investigative needs and individual privacy, particularly lawyer-client privilege. Sarkozy has compared the situation to actions by the secret police in the old East Germany.
Allies from Sarkozy’s conservative UMP party — which has been in a leadership crisis — jumped to the former president’s defense.
“They have never imposed such treatment on a former president, with such a surge of hate,” lawmaker Christian Estrosi tweeted.
Former French President Jacques Chirac was convicted in a corruption case in 2011 after he left office, but when he was questioned he was not held in police custody.
The Socialist government tried to stay above the fray.
“Justice officials are investigating, they should carry out the task to the end. Nicolas Sarkozy is a citizen answerable to justice like any other,” government spokesman Stephane Le Foll said on i-Tele television.
Political scientist Thomas Guenole said it’s too early to draw conclusions about Sarkozy’s political future.
“Nicolas Sarkozy has often been pronounced politically dead over the last two years because he was implicated in political-judicial affairs. … And he has always emerged,” Guenole said.
He described an “immense love” for Sarkozy amid hard-core members of his party, who view the investigations against Sarkozy as politically driven.
Sarkozy was handed preliminary charges in another investigation into whether he illegally took campaign donations from France’s richest woman, L’Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt. Those charges were later dropped.
In a separate case, relatives of French victims of a deadly 2002 bombing in Pakistan filed a complaint in Paris last year against Sarkozy and two former advisers for allegedly violating a duty to secrecy in the investigation of the case.
Judges are also investigating funding for his failed 2012 election bid, amid reports that false accounting was used to cover campaign expenses that had surpassed the legal limit. Sarkozy’s camp says he was unaware of any wrongdoing.
Despite all this, opinion polls show him in a strong potential position for 2017 election. Hollande won the presidency in 2012 on so far unfulfilled promises to boost jobs and the economy, but his popularity has lagged at record lows for much of his term.