Rachida Dati, the prominent French Right-winger, could be facing up to 15 years in jail after being charged over payments she received from the disgraced former Renault boss, Carlos Ghosn, amounting to almost a million euros.
Ms Dati, a former justice minister in ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy’s administration, dismissed the charges on Wednesday as a political smear ahead of next year’s presidential elections. She is mulling running in the primaries for the conservative party, The Republicans, and has sometimes been tipped as a future presidential contender.
France’s financial crimes unit said it was placing her under official investigation for "passive corruption by a person holding an elective mandate" and of "benefiting from abuse of power".
The charges relate to consulting work she did for Mr Ghosn from 2010 to 2012, when she was also an MP in the European Parliament.
The charges could yet be dropped if magistrates decide their serious suspicions of guilt are unfounded. Ms Dati, 55, denies any wrongdoing.
According to a source close to the investigation, Ms Dati, mayor of Paris’s 7th district, received €900,000 (£765,000) in lawyer’s fees from 2010-12.
Legal advice or lobbying? French judges want to know precisely what Rachida Dati was paid by Renault to do
The probe is seeking to clarify whether the work was purely legal or consisted also of lobbying, which would be illegal for European MEPs.
According to Le Monde newspaper, Ms Dati’s remit was to help with Renault’s international expansion, especially in the Middle East and northern Africa. She had asked for the work to be kept strictly confidential, it said.
Since the summer of 2019, three judges have been investigating contracts agreed by the Dutch subsidiary of Renault Nissan when Mr Ghosn was chief executive of the group.
Ms Dati was quizzed in the case for 16 hours in November but not formally charged, and was instead given the status of assisted witness.
However, magistrates investigating the case interrogated her again earlier this month and brought charges against her.
Ms Dati said that Renault was "neither the plaintiff nor a victim and no public funds were at stake". The case was triggered by a legal complaint from a Renault shareholder.
Once lauded as a visionary, Mr Ghosn fell spectacularly from grace in November 2018 when he was arrested in Japan on financial misconduct allegations.
Nicolas Sarkozy, who faces his own legal woes, is currently on holiday on the French Riviera
He spent 130 days in detention before jumping bail and smuggling himself out of the country in late 2019. Wanted by Interpol, he is now in Lebanon, where he was questioned by French magistrates as a witness.
Ms Dati on Wednesday pledged to fight back against the charges, saying: "The justice system is being used for an ulterior political motive."
"I will not allow judges to choose political officials," she told Le Parisien.
"I will take part in this fight," she added, apparently referring to party primaries ahead of next April’s presidential election. She has not yet officially applied and must do so before September 25.
Other potential candidates include Valérie Pécresse, head of the Paris region, and Michel Barnier, the EU’s former chief Brexit negotiator. Xavier Bertrand, head of the northern Hauts-de-France region, is for now insisting he will run on an individual ticket.
Ms Dati is not the only Right-winger to face legal woes. Her former boss, Mr Sarkozy, has been hit by a raft of probes since losing presidential immunity in 2012 after his five-year term.
Last month, prosecutors called for a six-month jail term for the 66-year-old in his trial over campaign finance violations during his failed re-election bid.
In March, Mr Sarkozy – who is currently holidaying with his wife Carla Bruni-Sarkozy on the French Riviera – became France’s first post-war president to be given a custodial sentence after he was handed a three-year prison term, two suspended, for seeking to bribe a judge.