Nicolas Sarkozy lashes out at corruption charges against him

Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy (R) smiles as he gets into a car outside his offices in central Paris on July 2, 2014, after an interview with French radio network Europe 1 and French TV channel TF1. STEPHANE DE SAKUTIN/AFP/Getty Images

PARIS - Former President Nicolas Sarkozy has accused the French justice system of trying to "destroy" him, after he was charged in a corruption probe.

The former conservative party leader fought back Wednesday in a broadcast interview after he was questioned over a highly publicized judicial investigation linked to allegations that he took 50 million euros ($67 million) in illegal campaign funds from Libya's Muammar Qaddafi.

The detention - a very unusual move for such a high-level figure - has dominated French news broadcasts, and comes as a possible political comeback by the hard-driving 59-year-old has been floated by his faltering UMP party.

Sarkozy, who spent nearly a day in custody Tuesday answering questions on his 2007 presidential campaign, told TF1 TV and Europe-1 radio he was "profoundly shocked" over his 16-hour detention.

"Is it normal that I should be in custody for so long?" Sarkozy asked, squinting intensely at an interviewer. He said his detention was motivated out of "a desire to humiliate me."

"A part of the justice system is being used for political purposes," he said.

Former French President Jacques Chirac was convicted in a corruption investigation in 2011 after he left office, but when he was questioned he was not held in police custody.

Sarkozy in his interview warned of an unspecified plot: "In our country... there are things that are in the process of being organized. The French need to know them, and in their conscience, and freely, need to judge what's happening."

Earlier, Prime Minister Manuel Valls said the investigation was being carried out independently of the Socialist government. His boss, Socialist President Francois Hollande, defeated Sarkozy in the presidential race in 2012.

"This situation is serious. The facts are serious," Valls told BFM TV. "But as head of the government, I'm asking that we remember the independence of the justice system, which must carry out its work serenely. No one is above the law is the second principle. And thirdly, an important reminder, there is the presumption of innocence."

Sarkozy is accused of tapping political allies to gain intelligence on a flurry of probes linked to campaign finance. He has vigorously denied the claims, and insisted Wednesday that he has "never betrayed trust" of the French people.

His personal lawyer, Thierry Herzog, and magistrate Gilbert Azibert were also questioned.

"This is yet another thing to erode the image of the political class, because it gives the image of an all-powerful group that believes itself to be above the law," said Jean Garrigues, a political historian at the University of Orleans and the Sorbonne.

Lawyers for Herzog and Azibert said the men were handed preliminary charges of influence trafficking.

After further investigation, judges will determine whether to hold a trial.

In 2012, Sarkozy was handed preliminary charges in another investigation into whether he illegally took campaign donations from France's richest woman, L'Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt. Those charges were later dropped.

In a separate case, relatives of French victims of a deadly 2002 bombing in Pakistan filed a complaint in Paris last year against Sarkozy and two former advisers for allegedly violating a duty to secrecy in the investigation of the case.

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