Sarkozy's best man charged in kickback probe
Sleaze claims hurt French President Nicolas Sarkozy's re-election hopes on Thursday when the best man at his wedding was charged with graft by judges probing alleged kickbacks on an arms deal.
Just seven months before the French leader is to go to the country to seek another five-year mandate, businessman Nicolas Bazire became the latest in a string of close allies to be confronted by a criminal investigation.
It is alleged that a 1995 presidential campaign by Sarkozy mentor Edouard Balladur was funded through a Pakistani submarine contract, which magistrates suspect indirectly led to a Karachi bomb attack that left 11 Frenchmen dead.
Sarkozy's office hit back strongly after the Bazire charge became public.
"Mr Nicolas Sarkozy did not manage Mr Edouard Balladur's campaign. He never exercised the slightest authority in the financing of this campaign," the Elysee said, denouncing "slander and petty political manipulation."
"As far as the so-called 'Karachi affair' is concerned, the head of state's name does not appear in any part of the dossier. His name has been cited by no witness nor actor in this case," the Elysee said.
The presidency did not explain how it could know whether or not Sarkozy's name had come up in a supposedly secret independent judicial probe, a matter of hours after Bazire had been released from questioning.
Bazire, a businessman and former government official who was best man at Sarkozy's wedding to supermodel Carla Bruni in February 2008, was detained on Wednesday and questioned overnight before being charged.
Bazire's lawyer, Jean-Yves Lienard, said that during questioning and prior to his release on bail his client affirmed his "total lack of involvement" in the matter and branded witness claims to the contrary "fantasist".
Another Sarkozy ally, Thierry Gaubert, was charged on Wednesday as part of the probe into the Pakistani deal. Both men are now subject to judicial probes into "misuse of public funds" and could face trial, judicial sources said.
Prosecutors suspect middlemen paid huge kickbacks on the Pakistani contract to former prime minister Balladur's 1995 presidential campaign, for which the then budget minister Sarkozy served as chief spokesman.
Bazire, 54, was Balladur's one time chief of staff and campaign manager. Gaubert worked for Sarkozy when he was mayor of the Paris suburb of Neuilly and was his communications adviser as minister.
Witnesses have told investigators Bazire had a large safe stuffed with cash during the 1995 campaign. He is now a member of the board of luxury goods giant LVMH, whose shares dropped 6.1 percent Thursday in a falling market.
Controversy over the arms contract erupted when investigators began probing whether a 2002 bomb attack in Karachi that killed 11 French engineers working on the project was a revenge attack for promised bribes not paid.
Balladur's presidential bid was defeated by Chirac, who, on coming to office, cancelled payments to middlemen on the contract, allegedly angering Pakistani intelligence officers who stood to profit from the deal.
Investigators and relatives of the French dead suspect Pakistanis staged the bomb attack -- officially blamed on Al-Qaeda -- in revenge. Sarkozy has dismissed claims that Balladur's campaign took kickbacks on the deal.
Nevertheless, the charges against two of his closest allies pushed the story back onto the front pages Thursday, completely overshadowing Sarkozy's speech to the United Nations General Assembly on the Middle East crisis.
Investigators are probing links between Gaubert and the Franco-Lebanese businessman Ziad Takieddine, who was charged last week with fraud over arms contracts with Pakistan and Saudi Arabia in which he was allegedly middleman.
A witness questioned by police on September 8 said Takieddine often travelled to Switzerland in the mid-1990s with Gaubert to get cases of cash that were handed over to Bazire in Paris, the news website Mediapart said.
News weekly the Nouvel Observateur identified the witness as Princess Helene of Yugoslavia, who is married to Gaubert but separated from him, and who reportedly told investigators of several trips to Switzerland.
Published photographs show the leader of Sarkozy's UMP party Jean-Francois Cope, his likely campaign manager for next year Brice Hortefeux, and Takieddine relaxing on the latter's luxury yacht off the Riviera.
Gaubert and his royal wife have also been photographed on the yacht.
France's Constitutional Court was legally advised in 1995 that Balladur's campaign accounts should be rejected because of question marks over huge cash donations, but members eventually voted to approve them in a close vote.
Sarkozy came to office in 1997 vowing to lead an "irreproachable republic", but his camp has since been tainted by a series of scandals, and opinion polls show him likely to be beaten next year by a Socialist candidate.
© 2011 AFP