PARIS – Former President Nicolas Sarkozy follows in a long line of French leaders in the legal crosshairs.
Voted out office in May, the 57-year-old conservative faced a judge Thursday over allegations that he illegally accepted donations from France's richest woman for his 2007 election campaign.
For whatever reason — political or personal vendettas, public dismay over years of suspected scandals — prosecutors in France have been increasingly going after their former top leaders.
Here are cases involving French presidents or premiers that brought two acquittals and two convictions, while two — including Sarkozy's — are pending.
Sarkozy lost his presidential immunity when he lost the presidency to Socialist Francois Hollande. Sarkozy was questioned by a Bordeaux judge who will decide whether the former president will be charged with taking advantage of L'Oreal cosmetics heiress Liliane Bettencourt, 90, during the 2007 election. Her former accountant told police that she handed over €150,000 ($192,000) in cash that she was told would be passed on to Sarkozy's campaign treasurer. Sarkozy could either face preliminary charges or be given special witness status with the possibility of facing charges later, his lawyer said.
The former president, who turns 80 next week, was found guilty of embezzling public funds to illegally finance the conservative party that he long led — dating back to his 18-year stint as mayor of Paris. He was handed a two-year suspended sentence. Chirac was targeted in a string of suspected corruption and illegal party financing cases over the years, but was immune from prosecution while head of state from 1995 to 2007.
Juppe, Chirac's first prime minister, was convicted in 2004 over the same party funding scheme, when he served as finance director at Paris City Hall under Chirac. Juppe received a suspended prison sentence and one-year ban from elected office from an appeals court — a far more lenient penalty than the original, and potentially career-ending, 10-year ban handed down by a lower court. Juppe proved that French politicians can bounce back from scandal: Today mayor of Bordeaux, he served as both foreign minister and defense minister under Sarkozy and remains a conservative party heavyweight.
DOMINIQUE DE VILLEPIN
Villepin, Chirac's last prime minister, was acquitted last year of charges claiming that he took part in a murky smear campaign against Sarkozy — his archrival — exposing the personal nature of some scandals. Villepin made his name internationally as France's leading voice of opposition to the U.S. drive to war that brought down Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Villepin, whose aristocratic image contrasts with Sarkozy's feisty persona, struggled and badly failed in his own presidential ambitions.
Balladur, a former Sarkozy mentor who was prime minister in the early 1990s, has denied allegations that his failed presidential campaign in 1995 — when Chirac won — may have received illegal kickbacks related to a defense deal between France and Pakistan. A Lebanese-born businessman suspected of a role in a bribery scandal involving a 1994 sale of French submarines to Pakistan has filed suit against Balladur for allegedly benefiting in the so-called Karachi affair. Investigators are examining whether the case had ties to a 2002 attack in Karachi, Pakistan that killed 11 French naval construction workers and four others.
On the Socialist side, Fabius, a former prime minister, was acquitted in 1999 of manslaughter in a scandal involving thousands of people who were given blood transfusions tainted with the virus that causes AIDS. France's high court also threw out cases against doctors who had prescribed tainted blood products before 1985, arguing they did not know the products might be deadly. Fabius, described as a 37-year-old political wunderkind when Francois Mitterrand chose him as prime minister in 1984, is still active in politics: He is Hollande's foreign minister.