President Bling-Bling in the clink? French police detain Sarkozy.

The police's questioning of France's former leader – in connection with allegations of influence-peddling – could torpedo Sarkozy's rumored political comeback and undermine his UMP opposition party.

Eric Gaillard/Reuters/File
Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy attends a ceremony in Nice in March 2014. Mr. Sarkozy was held today for questioning into suspicions that a network of informers kept him abreast of a separate inquiry into alleged irregularities in his 2007 election campaign, a legal source said.

More accustomed to schmoozing with world leaders or vacationing with his superstar wife, Carla Bruni, France’s former President Nicolas Sarkozy has found himself in entirely different company today: police custody.

In what French media are calling unprecedented for a contemporary former French head of state, Mr. Sarkozy has been questioned this morning by French anticorruption investigators over allegations of influence-peddling. The political saga has implications for Sarkozy’s personal political comeback and his center-right party – and has put the ruling Socialists on the defensive as well about their political motivations in the case.

Sarkozy was quizzed Tuesday morning in Nanterre, west of Paris, as part of an investigation over whether he used his influence to attain information in another case against him. That one revolves around whether the late Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi funded Sarkozy’s 2007 election bid. Sarkozy denies this.

This current case – one of several the former leader is facing – came to light after the government tapped phones in the course of the Qaddafi probe. Called the “affaire des écoutes,” or wiretapping scandal, it has been captivating French media since the winter, when the phone-tapping first came to light. The tapping of a former French president's phone communications is highly unusual.

In fact, according to the local media, this is the first time a former French head of state has been held in police custody, though he is not the first former president to face justice. Predecessor Jacques Chirac was given a suspended prison sentence in 2011 over embezzlement and breach of trust charges when he was mayor of Paris – at the time also unprecedented. Sarkozy can be held for a maximum of 48 hours before he must be released.

The affair has implications for his center-right UMP, which has been weakened by scandals and infighting. It’s been widely speculated that Sarkozy, who was France’s president from 2007 to 2012, is positioning himself for a political comeback in the next presidential race in 2017.  But he was a controversial figure during his term, not least because of an ostentatiousness that was reviled by the French public, who mocked him President “Bling Bling.”

Given the record low popularity of President François Hollande, who defeated Sarkozy in the 2012 race, however, Sarkozy has been marketed as the man to save France from its economic woes.

It’s unclear how much the public buys that. Recent polls have showed him trailing in popularity within the opposition party, notably behind another well-known figure of the UMP, Alain Juppe. This scandal will not help boost his support among voters.

But the case also leaves the ruling Socialists vulnerable to questions about the intense focus on Sarkozy's affairs. Government spokesman Stephane Le Foll defended the move as apolitical today, saying Sarkozy is “a citizen like any other” on i-Tele television.

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