Sarkozy: France's 'bling-bling' president dogged by legal woes

by Joseph Schmid

Paris (AFP) - Nicolas Sarkozy, who governed France as a tough-talking rightwing president from 2007 until 2012, is a divisive figure in French politics who has been dogged by legal cases since leaving office.

Taking a hard line on immigration, security and national identity, the 63-year-old attempted a comeback during last year's presidential campaign.

Sarkozy tried to bury his "bling-bling" image, which he earned during his time in office owing to his love of the high-life, by casting himself as a defender of the "down-and-outs against the elites".

But the man known universally in France as "Sarko" was humiliated in the rightwing's primary vote, finishing third behind Francois Fillon, who served for five years as prime minister under Sarkozy.

The ex-president's lavish lifestyle -- he is married to former top model Carla Bruni -- and failure to make good on many of his promises while in power had relegated him to a one-term presidency after he lost to Socialist Francois Hollande in 2012.

- Pugnacious -

The son of a Hungarian immigrant father has a pugnacious style which is seen as an asset by his admirers but a liability by his detractors who fault his apparent lack of self-control.

Many remember when Sarkozy visited the 2008 agriculture show in Paris -- a fixture on any top politician's calendar -- and said "get lost, dumbass" to a man who refused to shake his hand.

His temper also flared during a televised debate before last year's primary vote, when he slammed as "disgraceful" a question on fresh claims that he received millions in campaign funding from the regime of late Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi.

Born on January 28, 1955, the football fanatic and cycling enthusiast is an atypical French politician.

He has a law degree, but unlike most of his peers did not attend the exclusive Ecole Nationale d'Administration (ENA), the well-worn production line for future French leaders.

After he won the presidency at age 52, he was initially seen as injecting a much-needed dose of dynamism, making a splash on the international scene and wooing the corporate world.

Sarkozy was also the first French president to divorce, remarry and have a child -- his fourth -- while in office.

Sarkozy had refused to respond to a summons for questioning in the case, which drew heightened scrutiny in November 2016 when a businessman admitted delivering three cash-stuffed suitcases from Libya as campaign contributions.

By the end of his term however he had the lowest popularity ratings for a post-war French leader. His successor, Hollande, went on to score lower.

After his humiliating 2012 defeat, Sarkozy famously promised that "you won't hear about me anymore" before turning to the lucrative international lecture circuit.

But few observers were surprised when he returned to frontline politics in 2014, standing for and winning the leadership of the conservative UMP party, now renamed the Republicans.

- Legal turmoil -

A host of legal troubles failed to deter Sarkozy's comeback bid in 2016.

In July 2014, he became the first former head of state to be taken into custody for questioning which led to charges for corruption, influence peddling and violation of legal secrecy.

In that case, he is accused of conspiring with his lawyer to give a magistrate a lucrative job in exchange for inside information on an investigation into the financing of his 2007 campaign by L'Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt.

On Tuesday, he was taken into police custody again as part of the inquiry into the alleged financing of his 2007 presidential run by Kadhafi.

Sarkozy's questioning comes weeks after a former associate, Alexandre Djouhri, was arrested in London as part of the financing probe.

He is being held ahead of a hearing in Britain on March 28, and faces a hearing on extradition to France in July.