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France's Sarkozy placed under investigation over 2012 campaign funding

Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy has been formally charged in a case relating to PR firm Bygmalion, which is accused of false accounting. The scandal could wreck plans to contest the 2017 presidential election.

The 61-year-old spent Tuesday being questioned by investigating magistrates about breaking spending rules during his unsuccessful 2012 re-election campaign.

In the evening, prosecutors confirmed they were placing the former French president under formal examination.

Legal experts said the move is a prelude to a possible trial, though it does not lead automatically to prosecution.

PR firm probed

The case hinges on the activity of PR company Bygmalion, which organized some of Sarkozy's campaign appearances and is accused of using a vast system of false accounting.

Bygmalion allegedly charged 18.5 million euros ($21 million) to Sarkozy's right-wing party - then called the UMP, but since renamed The Republicans - instead of billing the campaign.

The incorrect invoicing allowed it to greatly exceed the legal spending limit of 22.5 million euros.

A judicial source said Sarkozy had been notified in advance that the summons could lead to his being placed under formal examination, which would be a prelude to a possible trial.

The former president has repeatedly denied any knowledge of dual accounting or false invoices.

Thirteen people from Bygmalion and the UMP have already been charged with fraud, breach of trust or illegal campaign financing.

Comeback scuppered?

Sarkozy had initially retired from politics after losing the 2012 election. He made a comeback just two years later, but his plans to contest the next election in May 2017 have been soured by several corruption scandals.

They include allegations of funding his 2007 campaign with money from late Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi, kickbacks from a Pakistani arms deal in the 1990s and trying to bribe a magistrate to get inside information on yet another corruption case in which he was implicated.

This latest investigation has recently widened beyond Bygmalion and is looking into a further 13.5 million euros in campaign spending by the UMP, of which only 3 million were declared at the time.

mm/kms (AFP, Reuters)