Influence-peddling probe for France's Sarkozy in latest legal woe

Paris (AFP) –


French prosecutors said Friday they have opened a probe into alleged influence-peddling against former president Nicolas Sarkozy, adding a new legal woe for an ex-leader already mired in judicial troubles.

The probe opened by France's PNF financial prosecutors concerns advisory activities undertaken by Sarkozy in Russia, the PNF told AFP, confirming a report by the Mediapart news site.

The investigation will look at alleged influence-peddling and covering up an offence, the PNF said, without specifying when the inquiry was launched.

Mediapart said the probe targeted a payment by Russian insurance firm Reso-Garantia of 3 million euros ($3.6 million) in 2019 while Sarkozy was working as an advisor, well after leaving office.

It said Reso Garantia, founded in 1991 and one of Russia's main insurers specialised in the auto sector, is controlled by two Russian billionaires of Armenian origin, Sergei and Nikolai Sarkisov.

In 2007, French insurer Axa agreed to take a 36.7 percent stake in the company for 810 million euros.

Mediapart said investigators are seeking to verify whether the former head of state only acted as a consultant -- which would be perfectly legal -- "or if he engaged in potentially criminal lobbying activities on behalf of the Russian oligarchs".

Sarkozy had already received a payment of 500,000 euros in early 2020 for the contract, Mediapart said.

- Mounting troubles -

The probe is just the latest legal headache for Sarkozy, who nonetheless remains popular among the right in France despite only holding onto the presidency for one term.

A court will on March 1 give its verdict in a separate corruption trial, with Sarkozy risking a jail sentence of up to four years.

He remains charged over allegations that he received millions of euros in funding from Libyan dictator Moamer Kadhafi and is also accused of fraudulently overspending on his failed 2012 reelection bid.

The rightwinger, who led France from 2007 to 2012, had insisted at a hearing in his graft trial that he "never committed the slightest act of corruption" and vowed to go "all the way" to clear his name.

Contacted by AFP for comment over the latest allegations, his office said it was "perfectly relaxed" adding that his advisory work was carried out "within strict respect of legal rules".

French newspaper Le Canard Enchaine also reported on Wednesday that his former wife Cecilia was paid as a parliamentary assistant in 2002, but cast doubt on whether she had worked to justify her salary.

The allegations, which echo those made in 2017 against the wife of former prime minister Francois Fillon and ended the ex-premier's political career, were denied by a source close to Sarkozy who ruled out any wrongdoing.

The long-running legal travails of Sarkozy, who lost on a second term in a tight race in 2012 against Socialist Francois Hollande, helped sink his comeback bid for the 2017 presidential vote.

But Sarkozy has surfed on a wave of popularity since announcing his retirement from politics in 2018, pressing the flesh with enthusiastic crowds at public appearances.

Lines of fans queued over last summer to have him sign his latest memoir "The Time of Storms", which topped best-seller lists for weeks.