PARIS, France (AFP) — Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy vowed to clear his name on Thursday after being charged for financing his 2007 election campaign with money from late Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, but admitted he was “finished” in politics.
“It might take me one, two, 10 years but I’ll smash this group (of accusers) and will restore my honor,” he said during an emotion-charged prime-time television interview on Friday evening. “I don’t plan to give an inch!”
Having already stepped back from a front-line public role in 2016 after he failed with a bid to run again for president, Sarkozy told his interviewer on the TF1 channel that for himself “politics is finished.”
In a defiant half-hour performance that saw him shake with indignation at times, Sarkozy frequently referred to his accusers from Gaddafi’s regime as “sinister,” “liars” and a “group of killers.”
“If you had told me that I would have problems because of Gaddafi, I would have said: ‘What are you smoking?'” Sarkozy said at one point, claiming that investigators had not found a single piece of evidence against him.
The 63-year-old, who served as French leader from 2007 to 2012, was charged with corruption, illegal campaign financing and concealment of Libyan public money on Thursday evening after two days of questioning in police custody.
Under the French system, charging a suspect means that investigators believe they have strong and corroborated evidence against them, but the defendant can appeal and the case can still be dropped before a trial.
The allegations that Sarkozy took money from Gaddafi — whom he welcomed to Paris in 2007 but then helped to topple in 2011 — are the most serious out of several investigations that have dogged him since he left office.
“I am hurt deeply as a person, not for me, for my country,” Sarkozy said in his concluding remarks on the TF1 channel. “You can’t drag people into the mud because some killers wanted to do it. I can’t let them get away with it.”
Earlier in a statement released to Le Figaro newspaper, Sarkozy said he had been “living the hell of this slander since March 11, 2011,” when the first allegations against him emerged via Gaddafi’s son, Seif al-Islam.
He went as far as to blame “the controversy launched by Gaddafi and his henchmen” for his failure to win re-election in 2012, when Francois Hollande, a Socialist, took the presidency.
Suitcases of cash?
Since 2013, investigators have been looking into claims by several figures in Gaddafi’s ousted regime that Sarkozy’s campaign received cash from the dictator.
In 2011, as NATO-backed forces were preparing to drive Gaddafi out of power, Seif al-Islam told the Euronews network that Sarkozy must “give back the money he took from Libya to finance his electoral campaign.”
Sarkozy has dismissed the allegations as the rantings of vindictive Gaddafi loyalists who were furious over the French-led military intervention that helped end Gaddafi’s 41-year rule and ultimately led to his death.
He has also unsuccessfully sued the investigative website Mediapart for publishing a document allegedly signed by Libya’s intelligence chief showing that Gaddafi agreed to give Sarkozy up to €50 million ($62 million). The courts have ruled it can be used as evidence.
Franco-Lebanese businessman Ziad Takieddine also claims to have delivered three suitcases stuffed with a total of €5 million ($6.15 million) to Sarkozy and his chief of staff in 2006 and 2007.
Sarkozy lashed out at the arms broker in his television interview and in his statement, arguing his account contained inconsistencies and accusing him of having “highly suspect characteristics and a questionable past.”
The legal investigation is also looking into a €500,000 foreign cash transfer to Sarkozy’s former chief of staff Claude Gueant and the 2009 sale of a luxury villa to a Libyan investment fund.
Le Monde newspaper further reported that other former regime officials have stepped forward alleging illicit financing.
First ex-president in custody
In 2014, Sarkozy became the first former French president to be taken into police custody, over a separate inquiry into claims he tried to interfere in another legal investigation against him.
But he is not the first ex-president to be charged with corruption — his predecessor Jacques Chirac was given a two-year suspended sentence in 2011 for embezzlement and misuse of public funds during his time as mayor of Paris.
Sarkozy is already charged in two separate cases, one relating to fake invoices devised to mask overspending on his failed 2012 campaign and another for alleged influence peddling.