Paris - French ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy was detained for questioning on Tuesday over allegations the late Libyan dictator Moammar Gaddafi financed his 2007 election campaign, including with suitcases stuffed with cash, a source close to the inquiry told AFP.
Sarkozy, 63, was taken into police custody early Tuesday morning and was being questioned by officers specialising in corruption, money laundering and tax evasion at their office in the western Parisian suburb of Nanterre.
AFP's source said that Brice Hortefeux, a close ally who served as a senior minister during Sarkozy's presidency, was also questioned on Tuesday as part of the inquiry.
The case is France's most explosive political financing scandal and one of several legal probes that have dogged the rightwing politician since he left office after one term in 2012.
Since 2013, investigating magistrates have been probing media reports, as well as statements by Gaddafi's son Seif al-Islam, that claimed funds were provided for Sarkozy's run at the presidency.
"Sarkozy must first give back the money he took from Libya to finance his electoral campaign," Seif told the Euronews network in 2011 as NATO-backed forces were driving his father out of power.
Sarkozy has dismissed the allegations as the rantings of vindictive Libyan regime members who were furious over France's military intervention in Libya that helped end Gaddafi's 41-year rule and led to his death.
He has also sued Mediapart, which has led media coverage of the Libyan allegations since 2012 when it published a document allegedly signed by Libya's intelligence chief showing that Gaddafi had agreed to fund Sarkozy to the tune of $62m.
The case drew heightened scrutiny in November 2016 when a Franco-Lebanese businessman admitted delivering three cash-stuffed suitcases from the Libyan leader in 2006 and 2007 as contributions towards Sarkozy's first presidential run.
In an interview, again with Mediapart, Ziad Takieddine claimed he dropped 1.5 to 2 million euros in 200-euro and 500-euro notes each time and was given the money by Gaddafi's military intelligence chief Abdallah Senussi.
When asked about the allegations during a televised debate in 2016, Sarkozy called the question "disgraceful" and said the businessman was a "liar".
The legal investigation is looking into these allegations, as well as a 500 000-euro foreign cash transfer to Sarkozy ally Claude Gueant, and the sale of a luxury villa in 2009 in the south of France to a Libyan investment fund for an allegedly inflated price.
Ties to Libya
Sarkozy, who takes a hard line on Islam and French identity, was nicknamed the "bling-bling" president during his time in office for his flashy displays of wealth.
He failed with a bid to run again for president in November 2016 and has stepped back from frontline politics since then, though he remains a powerful figure behind the scenes at the rightwing Republicans party.
The Republicans party offered its "full and complete support to former president Nicolas Sarkozy" in a statement, adding: "We wish to remind everyone about the principle of the presumption of innocence that is valid for everyone."
Seven months after his 2007 presidential victory, Sarkozy invited Gaddafi to Paris and clinched major arms and nuclear energy sales to the oil-rich north African country, which has since descended into civil war.
The Libyan autocrat was allowed to pitch his Bedouin-style tent on a lawn in central Paris and attended a dinner at the presidential palace, which was boycotted by several of Sarkozy's ministers.
Tuesday's detention was not the first for Sarkozy: he became the first French president to enter police custody in July 2014 over a separate inquiry into claims that he tried to interfere in one of the several investigations targeting him.
The summons on Tuesday came after another former associate, Swiss businessman Alexandre Djouhri, was arrested in London in January.
Investigating magistrates have recommended Sarkozy face trial on separate charges of illegal campaign financing over his failed 2012 re-election bid.
The prosecution claims Sarkozy spent nearly double the legal limit of $24m on his lavish campaign, using false billing from a public relations firm called Bygmalion.
He faces up to a year in prison if convicted, but he is appealing the decision to send him to trial, claiming he knew nothing about the fraudulent practices that Bygmalion executives have admitted to.
Only one French president - Jacques Chirac - has been tried in France's Fifth Republic, which was founded in 1958. He was given a two-year suspended jail term in 2011 over a fake jobs scandal.