Tangled web of corruption snares Sarkozy once more


It was not the sort of history he was planning to make.

Nicolas Sarkozy has spent the last six months fine-tuning his plans to become the first man to have won, lost and then reclaimed the presidency of France.

Instead, the onetime “bling-bling” president with the supermodel wife once again finds his comeback hopes suspended as he attempts to wriggle free of a web of interconnected corruption scandals.

The latest of these has landed him in police custody, with the 59-year-old achieving the unhappy distinction of becoming the first former president to be detained for questioning in a criminal probe when he turned up at a Paris police station Tuesday morning.

By early Wednesday after 15 hours of questioning, he was charged with corruption and influence peddling — serious crimes that if convicted could result in up to 10 years in prison.

Investigators suspect him of illegal interference in a probe into allegations his 2007 election campaign was partly financed by illicit donations from Libya’s former dictator Moammar Gadhafi.

Sarkozy has been preparing for a return to the political front-line in September, when it is anticipated he will reclaim the leadership of the UMP, France’s main center-right political party.

His allies say his legal travails, which they ascribe to pressure from the ruling Socialists, will only make the single-minded son of a Hungarian immigrant all the more determined.

“The more they go after him, the more that gives him the will to fight. Wait and see, he will come back stronger than ever,” said a close political ally.

Sarkozy has been here before. Last year he was charged with taking advantage of France’s richest woman when she was too frail to know what she was doing, in a case that centers on cash-stuffed envelopes allegedly being passed to UMP officials.

When the charge was finally dropped in October, his path back to power appeared to have been cleared.

Two years after he walked out of the Elysee Palace vowing never to return, polls made him one of the country’s most popular politicians and comfortably the center-right’s best chance for reclaiming the presidency in 2017.

Nine months later, the outlook is not quite as rosy.

The drip-drip negative impact of being constantly linked to corruption cases appears to have chipped away at his standing with voters on the right of the political spectrum.

“He has gone from 66 to 50 percent support as the best presidential candidate,” said Jean-Daniel Levy of the Harris Interactive polling agency.

“It is true he is still at the top of the list but (former Prime Minister) Alain Juppe is close on his heels now and is looking like someone who can both unite the right and attack the left.”

After his humiliating 2012 defeat by Francois Hollande, Sarkozy largely shunned the limelight, concentrating instead on making money on the international conference circuit.

But he has been unable to resist the lure of a return to the cut and thrust of political life.

Sarkozy has always been something of an outsider in the staid world of French politics.

The son of a Hungarian aristocrat who arrived penniless in France, Nicolas Sarkozy de Nagy-Bosca burst onto the political scene as a town mayor at 28, a member of Parliament at 34 and minister at 38.

He won the presidency at only 52 and was initially seen as a much-needed breath of dynamism, making a splash on the international scene and wooing the corporate world.

Breaking a long-standing taboo, Sarkozy also put his private life on display, divorcing his second wife while in office and publicly wooing supermodel and singer Carla Bruni.

He married Bruni in 2008 and the two had a daughter, Giulia, a few months before the 2012 election.

But as France’s economy floundered amid the wider eurozone economic crisis, Sarkozy’s public image took a beating.

His so-called bling-bling style — the seeds of which were laid with a champagne-soaked election night party at a glitzy Champs Elysees restaurant — provoked outrage as job losses mounted.

Hollande, a mild-mannered Socialist party apparatchik, seemed the perfect antidote two years ago but has since run into the same problems that Sarkozy encountered when trying to revive or reform the French economy.

The next election is there for the taking — Sarkozy’s hopes of having at shot at it could be wrecked.