The former French president Nicolas Sarkozy is facing a preliminary investigation for influence peddling in connection with a €3m (£2.7) contract he signed with a Russian insurance company.
The rightwing politician reportedly received a first payment of €500,000 last year after being hired as a “special adviser” to the Reso-Garantia group, owned by two Russian-Armenian billionaire brothers.
Anti-corruption detectives want to establish whether Sarkozy was employed as a consultant or to lobby on behalf of the company. The latter could lead to a charge of influence peddling and covering up a crime or misdemeanour.
The new investigation is the latest of Sarkozy’s ongoing legal woes. A verdict on last year’s trial for corruption and influence peddling, during which prosecutors called for a four-year jail sentence and which marked the first time a former French president had appeared in the dock, is expected on 1 March.
Sarkozy is also expected in court this year in relation to alleged illegal overspending on his unsuccessful 2012 re-election bid and is under ongoing investigation over allegations he received illicit campaign funding from the late Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.
A member of Sarkozy’s entourage told the Guardian the former president was “perfectly calm” about the new investigation and that his “consulting activities are framed in strict compliance with legal and ethical rules”.
The investigation was revealed by the website Mediapart just hours after the satirical newspaper Le Canard enchainé claimed Sarkozy’s ex-wife Cécilia Attias was paid as a part-time parliamentary assistant in 2002 when there was no evidence she did any work to justify her €3,100-a-month salary.
Sarkozy has repeatedly said he has never engaged in any wrongdoing and at times suggested the multiple accusations against him were a political smear attempt. He told the court last December he had “never committed the slightest act of corruption”.
According to Mediapart, France’s national fraud unit, Tracfin, raised concerns last year over why Sarkozy, who led France between 2007 and 2012, had been given the €3m contract with Reso-Garantia and what his role was. The company’s owners, Sergei and Nikolai Sarkisov, told Mediapart they had paid the former president as a “special adviser” and chairman of the company management board’s strategic council committee.
Reso-Garantia, founded in 1991, is one of Russia’s biggest insurance companies, specialising in vehicle insurance, with about 11 million customers. In 2007, the French insurer Axa acquired 36.7% of the company. Axa is a major client of the legal firm Realyze, co-founded by Sarkozy in 1987.
The national financial prosecutor confirmed Sarkozy had been placed under “preliminary investigation”. This is the first stage of a legal inquiry to establish whether there are any charges to answer. If the investigation concludes there are, the former president could be mis en examen, put under formal investigation.