Sarkozy’s legal troubles: Au revoir presidential hopes?

Valery Hache | AFP | Getty Images

It had all seemed to be going so well for former French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

His own UMP party is in disarray after its leader resigned following a funding scandal, meaning that it was ripe to be saved by a well-known face from the past. Incumbent President Francois Hollande, of the Socialist Party, is fast becoming a byword for unpopularity, with polls suggesting only around a fifth of French people think he is doing a good job. Talk of a Sarkozy presidency in 2017 was already gaining scheme.

Sarkozy's latest entry to the headlines may put a stop to that.

The center-right politician was placed under formal investigation on Wednesday, according to French prosecutors, over allegations he tried to stop an investigation into his 2007 election campaign – allegations Sarkozy denies. Sarkozy has already bounced back from being under investigation in relation to L'Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt's donations to his party during that campaign.

It is difficult to see how even this wily political survivor can come back from the maelstrom surrounding corruption allegations, whether he is formally charged or not. He is currently in "garde a vue," in custody like a common criminal, which will blot his image whether he is formally charged or not.

Sarkozy may be able to argue that the arrest is the result of the judiciary he made no secret of targeting during his term in office taking revenge – and the evidence against him seems to have been obtained via phone tapping, which may be difficult for prosecutors.

Of course, French people have been known to vote for politicians operating under a legal cloud before – see Jacques Chirac, who was eventually handed a two-year suspended sentence in 2011, for embezzling public funds while mayor of Paris in 1977-1995. Allegations which later resulted in his conviction first emerged during his presidency, but he was immune from prosecution until it was over.

- By CNBC's Catherine Boyle