Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy has been ordered to stand trial in an illegal campaign finance case.
Nicolas Sarkozy faces accusations that his party falsified accounts in order to hide 18 million euros ($20 million) of campaign spending in 2012.
The former president has repeatedly denied that he was aware of the overspending.
Nicolas Sarkozy lost the 2012 race to Francois Hollande, and failed in his bid to run again in this year’s upcoming presidential election.
The case is known as the Bygmalion scandal.
It centers on claims that Nicolas Sarkozy’s party, then known as the UMP, connived with a friendly PR company to hide the true cost of his 2012 presidential election campaign.
France sets limits on campaign spending, and it is alleged the firm Bygmalion invoiced Nicolas Sarkozy’s party rather than the campaign, allowing the UMP to exceed the limit.
Employees at Bygmalion have admitted knowledge of the ruse and several UMP members already face charges.
Nicolas Sarkozy’s court case is expected to focus on whether the ex-leader was aware of the alleged fraud.
Thirteen other people are also expected to be tried.
However, judicial sources say an appeal could be launched against the trial order, because it was only made by one of the two judges handling the case.
The development comes as other French politicians have faced questions over their financial dealings.
Francois Fillon, who beat Nicolas Sarkozy to become the center-right’s candidate for the presidential race, is accused of misusing public funds to employ his wife and two children.
Meanwhile, the European Parliament is demanding France’s far-right leader Marine Le Pen return funds it says she has misspent, by paying an aide at the National Front party’s headquarters in Paris.
Nicolas Sarkozy is the second French president to be put on trial since 1958, when the current French republic was established.
Former President Jacques Chirac was given a two-year suspended prison sentence in 2011 for diverting public funds and abusing public trust.
Socialist Francois Hollande has won most votes in the first round of France’s presidential election, early estimates say.
Francois Hollande got 28.4% of votes, according to projections based on partial results, against 25.5% for centre-right incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy.
Nicolas Sarkozy and Francois Hollande will face each other in a second-round run-off on 6 May.
The election has been dominated by widespread anxiety over the French economy and the wider eurozone crisis.
Socialist Francois Hollande has won most votes in the first round of France's presidential election, early estimates say
The estimates – based on votes counted in polling stations that closed early at 18:00 – were announced by French media when all voting ended at 20:00.
It is the first time a French president running for re-election has failed to win the first round since the start of the Fifth Republic in 1958.
Nicolas Sarkozy – who has been in power since 2007 – was facing a total of nine candidates in Sunday’s first round.
Far-right leader Marine Le Pen came third with about 20% of the vote, and leftist candidate Jean-Luc Melanchon fourth with more than 11%.
Centrist Francois Bayrou, who was hoping to repeat his high 2007 score of 18%, garnered only about 9%.
From the moment Nicolas Sarkozy took office in 2007, no French president in modern times has been the object of such blatant dislike.
It is an animosity quite distinct from opposition to his actual policies.
All leaders expect hostility for the things they do. Few get it in such measure for the things they are.
“There is an irrational hatred of Nicolas Sarkozy among much of the public, and it is playing a major part in this election,” says Jean-Sebastien Ferjou who edits the news website Atlantico.
“I say <<irrational>> because that is what it is. Polls show that if you ask people about this or that policy of Sarkozy’s – but don’t mention his name – they will tend to support it.
“But they’re still not going to vote for him.”
For Jean-Sebastien Ferjou, the main reason for the hostility is that Nicolas Sarkozy was the first French leader to declare himself unashamedly on the political right.
“It is ironic because in fact he is ideologically totally unstructured. His talent is for energy and movement, and it is impossible to say what sort of intellectual history he comes from,” says Jean-Sebastien Ferjou.
“But he sent out a message very clearly that he was not embarrassed about saying he was on the right – and this set off a huge backlash of hostility.
“You have to understand that for years the right in France has totally abandoned the intellectual debate to the left.
“For so-called <<right-wing>> parties, the only argument they put forward was that they were better managers than the left. They could run things better. But they had surrendered in the battle of ideas and values.
“Sarkozy ended that complicity, and people hated him for it.”
From the moment Nicolas Sarkozy took office in 2007, no French president in modern times has been the object of such blatant dislike
The tone for this “Sarkophobia” is set in the cafes and cultural salons of bourgeois Paris, where the president is routinely viewed as vulgar, money-obsessed, semi-racist and dangerous.
Recently the film director Mathieu Kassowitz said that if the president made it to round two of the election, it would show that France was a “neo-fascist collaborationist” country.
The entertainer Christophe Aleveque said in an interview that Nicolas Sarkozy is “dangerous… from another planet… a fool who believes his own lies… psychologically not normal”.
“If he loves money so much that is fine, but it is his problem, so may I suggest he get a job in a bank or something. And leave us alone!” he said.
Five years after Nicolas Sarkozy celebrated his 2007 election victory at the pricey Champs-Elysees restaurant Le Fouquet’s, this is still held up as a symbol of his supposed jet-set lifestyle.
However, as his supporters grow tired of pointing out, senior Socialists are regularly seen dining in expensive Paris eateries. President Francois Mitterrand had no shortage of wealthy friends.
In 2002, the wife of the Socialist candidate Lionel Jospin told a magazine profiler how she did her shopping at Le Bon Marche – the Paris equivalent of Harrod’s food hall.
But being a sophisticated display of wealth,that was considered acceptable.
For the right-wing lawyer and polemicist Gilles-William Goldnadel, the roots of the anti-Sarkozism lie in a public culture still in thrall to the allure of the left.
“It is that old tradition – revolutionary, romantic – which will attack anything that smacks of money or privilege,” he says.
“And it’s allied to a journalistic profession that is overwhelmingly on the left.
“Polls show that 80 to 95% of journalists are on the left or far-left, and with their obsessive focus on the so-called vices of Nicolas Sarkozy, they are pushing the same agenda.”
Another interpretation of Sarkophobia is offered by writer Andre Bercoff, author of La Chasse au Sarko (The Sarko Hunt).
He says the real reason people dislike the president is not “Fouquet’s or bling-bling or all that nonsense. It’s because he broke the rules of how to be president.
“When de Gaulle set up the Fifth Republic, he created a presidency that was very like a monarchy. And since then all presidents, of left and right, have been happy to go along with that.
“But then along came Sarkozy who said, <<I don’t want to be a king – I want to be a politician. I want to be like a football coach>>. And the people really resent him for it.”
For Andre Bercoff, the other reason why the president is loathed is that he has told the French some inconvenient truths.
“The French were happy as long as they were ruled by a Mitterrand or Chirac, leaders who nurtured their post-Revolutionary belief that the French are a kind of chosen people for whom the normal rules of economics don’t apply,” he says.
“There is still a widespread feeling in France that we should set the path to a new way of being. Look at the success of (far-left candidate) Jean-Luc Melenchon.
“But Sarkozy punctured that illusion – and again people hate him for it.”
Jean-Sebastien Ferjou, Gilles-William Goldnadel and Andre Bercoff all believe that Nicolas Sarkozy has already lost the election, and that the prevailing anti-Sarkozism is a major cause.
But at Sorbonne University, sociology professor Michel Maffesoli is not so sure.
He agrees that Nicolas Sarkozy is the butt of an official culture whose exponents in the media, universities and the arts are overwhelmingly hostile.
But he draws a distinction between published opinion – the views of the intelligentsia – and public opinion.
And with the mass of the population, he argues, the president has far more of a rapport than is ever acknowledged.
“French public life has been dominated for two or three centuries by the rationalist ideas of the Enlightenment.
“But these ideas, which we might describe as those that have shaped ‘modernity’, are now giving way to the ideas and values of <<post-modernity>>,” he says.
“Post-modernity, which is the condition our societies are moving into, is far more anchored around the emotional than the rational or intellectual.
“And Sarkozy seems to have grasped this instinctively. He is far more in phase with ordinary people than are the intellectuals who govern public life.”
Michel Maffesoli does not believe in opinion polls, because he says people know what they are expected to say, and so underplay their support for Nicolas Sarkozy.
“But in the voting-booth it is different. The booth is like a womb where people reconnect with the purely emotional. It means going with their gut rather than their brains.
“That’s why I think Sarkozy can still do it.”
It seems a bit of a long shot. Whatever Michel Maffesoli thinks of them, the opinion polls are pretty categoric.
But as Jean-Sebastien Ferjou also points out: “More than 60% of people voting for Hollande say they are going to do it purely to get rid of Sarkozy.”
Perhaps not the most positive way to embark on a new political era.