Former French president defends himself after being put under formal investigation for alleged corruption case.
To the French right it was political persecution and a plot to undermine Nicolas Sarkozy's eventual return to power. To the left it was the country's justice system doing its job and showing that no man – not even a powerful former president – is above the law.
But on Wednesday night it was Sarkozy's turn to speak after a day in which he was put under formal investigation for allegations of corruption, trafficking influence and receiving information violating professional secrecy.
Sarkozy appeared on television for the first time since leaving the Elysée Palace in 2012 to claim the justice system was being used as a "political instrument" against him and to lash out at the magistrates and France's Socialist government.
"In our country, the country of human rights and the right of law, there are things that are being organised … everything is being done to give an image of me that is not the truth. To all those watching and listening, I want to say that I have never betrayed their confidence. I have never committed an act against republican principles or the law," he said.
Wearing a sombre suit and tie, the former president looked tanned and clean-shaven – recent photos showed him with fashionable stubble – and came out fighting, describing the accusations as "grotesque", and accusing the judges of being politically biased and determined to humiliate and destroy him.
"I am profoundly shocked about what has happened. I don't ask for any privileges – if I have committed errors I will take the consequences. I am not a man to flee my responsibilities," he said.
He added that in 35 years in public life, no other politician had come under such legal scrutiny, but no evidence had been found against him and his record was clean. "I have nothing to be ashamed of. Nothing."
The interview came a day after he was summoned to a police station on the outskirts of Paris on Tuesday morning and told he was being held in custody – a first for a former president in modern France.
Three others, Sarkozy's lawyer Thierry Herzog and two magistrates, have also been put under investigation in the case. All deny any wrongdoing.
Sarkozy, 59, had been taken to appear before a judge late on Tuesday evening and mis en examen, the equivalent of being charged or arraigned. The investigating magistrates heading the corruption inquiry decided there was enough evidence to put him under official investigation.
The respected financial daily Les Echos described it as a "spectacular measure", coming as the former leader plans his political comeback.
As the aftershock spread through French political circles, the Socialist president, François Hollande, who unseated Sarkozy after just one term in office in 2012, cautioned that the independence of the justice system and the presumption of innocence must prevail.
His prime minister, Manuel Valls, said: "The facts are serious. This relates to magistrates, top ranking magistrates, a lawyer and a former president of the republic.
"But as head of government, I must respect the principles of the independence of the judiciary and the presumption of innocence."
Asked by BFMTV if Sarkozy was "subject to the same justice as others", Valls replied: "Yes, of course."
He added: "These are investigating judges, independent judges, it's not the [public] powers that have demanded they carry out these inquiries, they are acting and working in an independent manner. If each time, for every affair, on each case that involves, or not, politicians there is this kind of polemic, we are undermining the very basic principles of the rule of law."
François Fillon, a former prime minister for Sarkozy's centre-right UMP party, said it was important "light was shone" on the case as quickly as possible: "Not just for a man who is going through a painful ordeal, but for a country that is sinking into a confidence crisis.
"As a former president of the republic, he [Sarkozy] has the right to respect."
Another former centre-right prime minister, Alain Juppé, added on Twitter: "I think of Nicolas Sarkozy with friendship. He is, of course, presumed innocent and I hope his defence will show his innocence."
Florian Philippot, vice-president of the far-right Front National, was less sympathetic. "The ambience of these cases around Nicolas Sarkozy is becoming extremely weighty. We have to purge ourselves of this."
Before losing the 2012 presidential elections, Sarkozy promised to disappear from public life if he lost, telling voters they would "not hear from" him again.
Nearly three years on, few on any part of the French political spectrum believe he does not intend to stand for a second term of office in 2017.
The current case was sparked by information that allegedly emerged after detectives tapped Sarkozy's mobile phone as part of a separate investigation into alleged illegal political campaign donations.
After getting wind of the tapes, the former leader reportedly took out another phone subscription under a pseudonym to speak to his lawyer, Herzog, which detectives also bugged.
Investigators claim the secretly taped conversations suggest the ex-president and his lawyer were trying to obtain information from magistrates about the campaign donation case and, most damagingly, had allegedly offered one magistrate a high-powered job in Monaco if he passed on legal secrets.
Thomas Guénolé, a lecturer at the Institute of Political Science in Paris, and author of Nicolas Sarkozy, Chronicle of an Impossible Return?, said he believed only direct proof of illegal activity or a conviction would stop the former president making a comeback. "Whenever there is a legal problem, there is the same legal defence from Sarkozy. It is: 1, this is a plot against me; 2, all this is not happening by random chance; and 3, the prosecution has nothing, the case against me is empty," Guénolé told the Guardian.
"Almost all the rightwing sympathisers agree with the idea that it's a conspiracy and he's being persecuted."
Guénolé added: "There are only two things that can stop Sarkozy's return to politics: actual and absolute proof that he personally and directly did something illegal; or if he is brought to trial and convicted. Nothing else will work to stop the bulldozer. Nothing.
"But we talk about a political comeback, when in fact Sarkozy never went away."