PARIS (AFP, REUTERS) - A magistrate has ordered former French president Nicolas Sarkozy to stand trial over irregularities in the funding of his failed 2012 re-election bid, a judicial source said on Tuesday (Feb 7).
The charge against Sarkozy, who led France for five years from 2007, exposes the 62-year old conservative politician to a one-year prison sentence if convicted.
The prosecution claims Sarkozy greatly exceeded a spending limit of 22.5 million euros (S$34 million) by using false billing from a public relations firm called Bygmalion.
Bygmalion allegedly charged 18.5 million euros to Sarkozy's rightwing party - which at the time was called the UMP, but has since been renamed the Republicans - instead of billing the president's campaign.
Executives from the company have acknowledged the existence of fraud and false accounting and the trial will focus on whether Sarkozy himself was aware or taking decisions about it.
The source added that 13 others would also face trial over the so-called 'Bygmalion Affair', which has involved charges of spending overruns and funding irregularities.
The source said it was still possible that an appeal could be lodged against the trial order because it was signed by only one of the two magistrates in charge of the case.
No comment could be immediately obtained from Sarkozy's aides.
The son of a Hungarian immigrant father, Sarkozy was French President from 2007 to 2012 and was nicknamed the "bling-bling" president for his flashy displays of wealth.
Questioned by police in September 2015, Sarkozy said he did not recall ever being warned about the accounting and described the controversy as a "farce", putting the responsibility squarely on Bygmalion and the UMP.
The trial order comes at a time when French politicians face growing scrutiny over their personal and political finances in the build-up to this year's presidential election in April and May.
Only one other president - Jacques Chirac - has been tried in France's fifth republic, which was founded in 1958. He was give a two-year suspended jail term in 2011 over a fake job scandal.
That was the first conviction of a French head of state since Nazi collaborator Marshal Philippe Petain in 1945.
Conservative Francois Fillon, who beat rivals including Sarkozy to become the centre-right's candidate in this year's race, has been engulfed by a scandal over payments of public funds to his wife and children.
Far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen is also being pursued by the European Parliament to refund money paid to her bodyguard and another person.
While the so-called Bygmalion case is the most pressing, 61-year-old Sarkozy has been fighting legal problems on several fronts since losing the 2012 election to President Francois Hollande.
After retiring from politics following that defeat, he returned to take the helm of the Republicans and sought the nomination to run for president in this year's two-stage election in April and May.
In a surprise result, he was eliminated in November in the first round of a primary contest, trailing the eventual winner Francois Fillon and former prime minister Alain Juppe.