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Sarkozy legacy leaves scandals for Hollande

PARIS — The scandal, intrigue, and occasional vaudeville of Nicolas Sarkozy’s five years in the presidency made headlines, and French journalists once fretted that politics under his successor, François Hollande, who pledged to be a “normal” president, might prove unbearably dull.

But that fear overlooked the court cases, judicial investigations, and general whiff of malfeasance that would trail Sarkozy and his lieutenants out of the corridors of power and, it now appears, entangle even Hollande.

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The current president’s tumultuous love life has made for a bit of public drama in recent months, with reports that he had a mistress and slipped off to trysts via motor scooter. But the French no longer seem to care much, if they ever did, and a knot of holdover scandals from the Sarkozy era are now making for the best reading.

Through a bizarre sequence of government missteps, by the weekend they had become as much a crisis for Hollande as for Sarkozy.

The almost universal expectation that Sarkozy will make a bid for the presidency in 2017 has only heightened the drama.

Chief among the affairs is the allegation, now under investigation by two special magistrates, that Sarkozy’s 2007 presidential campaign received as much as $70 million in illegal funds from Moammar Khadafy of Libya.

This month, the newspaper Le Monde revealed that investigators had tapped the phones of Sarkozy, two of his former ministers, and his lawyer, Thierry Herzog, beginning last year. The practice is not illegal, but lawyers say the surveillance of Herzog may violate attorney-client privilege.

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Sarkozy appears to be the first former French president to have his private conversations monitored by investigators. He has denied the claims of Libyan financing, made by former loyalists to Khadafy and one of his sons, and says they are meant to damage him in revenge for the international military intervention he helped orchestrate in Libya in 2011.

It is unclear if the phone-tapping did anything to corroborate the claims, but it has led to unrelated suspicions involving Sarkozy and a well-placed magistrate, Gilbert Azibert, who is believed to have served as his informer in the courts.

In their recorded conversations, Le Monde reported, Sarkozy and Herzog discussed an investigation into whether Sarkozy’s 2007 campaign received illegal funding from Liliane Bettencourt, the 91-year-old L’Oréal heiress who is France’s richest woman.

Some of the evidence in that case is being used in yet another case implicating Sarkozy, involving a $550 million state payout in 2008 to Bernard Tapie, a colorful businessman with a checkered past.

Sarkozy had been kept quietly informed about a court’s plans for the evidence by Azibert, according to government documents. Azibert, who is nearing retirement, is said to have intimated that he might like some assistance in obtaining a post in the seaside principality of Monaco, and Sarkozy said he would help, in exchange for information.

An investigation into breach of judicial secrecy and influence peddling has been opened. The party spent $11 million with the firm, more than one-quarter of its entire declared campaign spending, Le Point reported last month.

After first insisting that they had learned of the phone-tapping only through the news media, Hollande’s government ministers including the justice minister, Christiane Taubira, admitted they were informed as early as last month.

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