France's former president Nicolas Sarkozy has been charged with corruption and influence peddling, French prosecutors said today, a dramatic move in a criminal probe that could wreck his hopes of a political comeback.
The decision came after Nicolas Sarkozy was questioned for 15 hours, marking the first time a French ex-head of state had been taken into custody in a criminal investigation.
The right-wing leader had been detained at a police station in a Paris suburb in connection with a suspected attempt to illegally influence judicial proceedings in one of a raft of colourful corruption cases he is implicated in.
Sarkozy turned up at the station in Nanterre in a black saloon car with tinted windows at 8:00 am (0600 GMT).
After the lengthy questioning, the former president was taken in the early hours of today to appear before a judge, where he was charged with corruption and influence peddling, the prosecution said in a statement to AFP.
If convicted of those charges, he could face a sentence of up to 10 years in prison.
Sarkozy's longtime lawyer Thierry Herzog and a magistrate, Gilbert Azibert - taken into custody a day earlier alongside another magistrate - were both charged with influence peddling in a late night court appearance, their respective lawyers said.
Investigators suspect Sarkozy attempted to obtain inside information from one of the magistrates about confidential proceedings in an illegal election financing case, and that he was tipped off by a senior figure when judges tapped his phones.
Sarkozy, 59, has faced virtually non-stop legal battles since he left office following his defeat by Socialist candidate Francois Hollande in the 2012 presidential vote.
He had been expected to attempt a political comeback in time for the next presidential poll in 2017, but those plans could be torpedoed after being charged in this case.
He vehemently denies any wrongdoing, and his allies on the right of the political spectrum denounced what they see as a witch-hunt against their man.
"Never before has a former president been subjected to such treatment, such an unleashing of hate," said Christian Estrosi, the mayor of Nice and an MP for Sarkozy's UMP party.
Government spokesman Stephane Le Foll insisted the judges in the case had acted of their own accord.
"The justice system is investigating and will follow this through to the end. Nicolas Sarkozy can face justice just like anyone else," Le Foll said.