By Chine Labbé
PARIS (Reuters) - France's state prosecutor said on Monday that presidential hopeful Nicholas Sarkozy should stand trial over funding irregularities in his failed 2012 re-election bid, potentially disrupting his new campaign.
Sarkozy is accused of "knowingly underestimating" elements of his campaign financing, according to a judicial source.
A divisive centre-right politician who lost to the now deeply unpopular Socialist Francois Hollande in 2012, he declared two weeks ago that he would stand again for the presidency in April's vote.
The prosecutor's office recommended he stand trial with 13 others in the so-called Bygmalion Affair, involving spending overruns and allegedly illegal financing, the source said.
Sarkozy did not immediately respond in person but his lawyer, Thierry Herzog, issued a statement accusing the state prosecutor, which answers to the justice ministry, of a "shoddy political manoeuvre".
The timing is tricky for Sarkozy in the run-up to a candidacy contest, pitting himself against several conservative rivals for the presidential ticket of the Les Republicains party and its allies on the political centre-right.
By the time that primary contest takes place in late November, the independent magistrate who placed Sarkozy under formal investigation last February is expected to have announced if he will order a trial.
Such magistrates have the last word in France on whether to send a case to trial. More often than not, their decisions go the same way as the recommendation of the public prosecutor.
Sarkozy's lawyer accused the public prosecution of excessive haste for political reasons, without elaborating.
"The Paris prosecution service did not even take the time needed to examine written elements submitted by Nicolas Sarkozy's legal advisers in favor of acquittal," he said in a statement.
"This is another shoddy political manoeuvre."
The lawyer noted that Sarkozy had already personally paid a financial penalty of 363,615 euros ($405,540) for breaching campaign spending ceilings in 2012. Funding irregularities carry a penalty of up to one year in prison and a fine of 3,750 euros.
He is also being investigated separately on suspicion of using his influence to obtain information from a state attorney.
Legal experts say a trial would almost certainly not take place until after the 2017 election, meaning nothing would legally prevent Sarkozy from seeking office.
The former president is trying to win back votes from the far-right National Front, whose rising popularity mirrors that of populist politicians in other countries who have appealed to voter worries over globalisation and immigration.
While an economic crisis in France and Europe dominated Sarkozy's first term, a series of deadly Islamist attacks that have killed hundreds of people in France over the past 18 months has put the focus on security in the 2017 campaign.
While Sarkozy lagged for months in opinion polls behind Alain Juppe, a more centrist former prime minister who is his main rival for the November primaries, his popularity has been improving among right-wing voters.
(Writing by Brian Love; Editing by Richard Lough and Louise Ireland)