Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who’s going back to practicing law, may spend much of his time in the months ahead defending one person: himself.
Only the second French president to not win re-election, Sarkozy’s immunity ends tonight, opening the door for his questioning as a witness or a target in allegations ranging from illegal campaign financing to two-decade-old kickbacks.
“Mr. Sarkozy has to be a little concerned once he loses his immunity of being hauled before the courts,” William Keylor, a professor of modern French history at Boston University, said in a telephone interview.
With questions involving L’Oreal SA heiress Liliane Bettencourt, a French submarine sale to Pakistan and funds from late Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi, Sarkozy, 57, is likely to remain in the limelight he sought to avoid after being defeated in the May 6 election. Before the vote, he said he would quit politics if he lost. He has since found an office in the chic 8th arrondissement of Paris and begun hiring staff for a return to practicing law.
Sarkozy’s office and lawyer didn’t return calls and e-mails requesting comment on the end of his immunity.
His predecessor, Jacques Chirac, was the first to test the immunity provided to the head of state by the French Constitution. A 1999 Constitutional Council ruled he was shielded from answering questions while he served his term, with his immunity expiring a month after leaving office.
French courts showed they meant business, trying and convicting Chirac once his immunity ended. He got a suspended jail sentence in December for corruption during his time as Paris mayor, a post he held from 1977 until 1995.
Chirac “does establish a precedent,” Keylor said.
For Sarkozy, the case Keylor calls “the big one” involves Bettencourt, who according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index is France’s richest woman. Judges in Bordeaux are looking into allegations that her former financial adviser gave cash illegally to Sarkozy’s party treasurer in 2007 for his presidential bid. Many of the allegations were made by Bettencourt’s former accountant, Claire Thibout.
The judges are looking into whether Bettencourt -- who’s under the care of her family since a court last year said the 89-year-old was no longer able to manage her own affairs -- was manipulated by her entourage.
What began as a family affair has spiraled into a political scandal after secret recordings of Bettencourt talking to her advisers were published in 2010. Judges have charged and jailed her former financial adviser, holding him since March to answer questions on what he did with cash withdrawn from Bettencourt accounts around the 2007 French presidential vote.
While the judges don’t have any evidence directly against Sarkozy, “it is indispensable that he be heard because he’s very implicated in this affair,” said Antoine Gillot, lawyer to the former accountant.
Lawyers for the former financial adviser, Patrice de Maistre, didn’t return calls for comments on the status of the investigation.
Sarkozy has denied getting illegal campaign contributions, saying on April 3 on Canal Plus television channel that “there’s not a penny whose origin is unaccounted for.”
He acknowledged knowing Bettencourt and her family, saying they were long-time residents of his town of Neuilly and “of course” he’s met them, adding “what’s the problem?”
A related case involves a probe into whether France’s intelligence service was used to spy on reporters of the newspaper Le Monde to determine the source of their stories linking Sarkozy’s administration to the Bettencourt case.
Another investigation looming on the horizon is the so-called Karachi Affair. Investigating judges are looking into whether money from bribes to secure submarine sales to Pakistan in the 1990s returned to France via kickbacks to fund the failed 1995 presidential bid of then-Prime Minister Edouard Balladur.
Sarkozy was Balladur’s budget minister and campaign spokesman. Charged in the case are two of Sarkozy’s friends -- one a witness at his 2008 wedding to Carla Bruni and the other a former adviser to him at the budget ministry. Prosecutors began investigating the case after 11 French military engineers were killed in a May 2002 bomb attack in Karachi.
The Le Figaro newspaper reported in June 2009 that prosecutors concluded the attack was linked to then-President Chirac’s decision to cancel secret payments agreed under his predecessors to middlemen who brokered the contract.
Sarkozy is likely also to face questions about an April press report based on a letter suggesting Qaddafi offered to fund his 2007 campaign. He called the story “a set-up.” The Libyan National Transitional Council called the letter a fake.
Presidents are fair game Chirac’s trial showed, said Robert Zaretsky, a European history professor at the University of Houston.
“A breach has been opened in that wall,” he said.
There’s nothing to suggest that investigators or courts, would be as “extraordinarily lenient” with Sarkozy as they were with Chirac, he said.
Prosecutors trod lightly in part because of 79-year-old Chirac’s ill-health, for which he was excused from the trial. The former president was also one of France’s most popular politicians after he left office in 2007.
“An avuncular figure,” Chirac “wasn’t necessarily respected but he was liked,” Zaretsky said.
In contrast, Sarkozy was reviled by the time he became the first president since Valery Giscard d’Estaing in 1981 to lose re-election. Also, the investigations, especially related to Bettencourt, are much more advanced than the allegations that dogged Chirac in his second term. Additionally, some of the cases touch Sarkozy’s activities while he was head of state.
Sarkozy “is an extremely divisive figure, unlike Chirac, and one wonders how the magistrates will handle” him, Zaretsky said. “There is something far more brutal and blunt and direct in the accusations against Sarkozy.”