PARIS - Former French prime minister Edouard Balladur is to stand trial at a special court over charges that kickbacks from the sale of submarines to Pakistan helped finance his 1995 presidential election campaign.

The trial comes over years of investigations into the “Karachi Affair”, a series of nebulous dealings by middlemen involving possible “retro-commissions” linked to the sale of Agosta class submarines by the French government to Pakistan in the 1990s.

The “Karachi affair” was a major scandal involving negotiations between then Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and the French presidencies of Francois Mitterrand and Jacques Chirac for the sale of Agosta 90B-class submarines. A contract was eventually signed in 1994.

Balladur served as prime minister of France between 1993 and 1995 under Mitterrand, but lost his subsequent bid for the presidency to Chirac.

The investigation was launched after 11 French submarine engineers were murdered in Karachi in a 2002 bomb attack on the bus transporting them. It was initially blamed on Al-Qaeda terrorists, but investigating judges also looked into whether the blast was to punish France for failing to pay part of €80 million (£71m) in sweeteners to senior Pakistani officials.

When Jacques Chirac beat Mr Balladur, now 90, to become French president in 1995, it is alleged that he punished his one-time ally for running against him by halting the remaining payments to Pakistani middlemen.

Ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy, who was budget minister and spokesman for Mr Balladur’s presidential campaign at the time, has previously angrily rejected media speculation that he might have known of the payments as “grotesque”.

Mr Balladur will stand trial before the Court of Justice of the Republic, set up to try cases of current and former ministers. He and his former defence minister, François Léotard, 77, face charges of “complicity in the abuse of public funds” and concealing this alleged crime. They had been under official investigation since 2017.

In all, investigating magistrates believe that Mr Balladur received 13 million francs (around £1.8m) for the sale of submarines to Pakistan but also frigates to Saudi Arabia. Mr Léotard is notably accused of setting up an “opaque circuit” of arms dealers linked to both countries.

Mr Balladur is accused of receiving some 10 million francs of the kickbacks “in cash”, said François Molins, the prosecutor general, in a statement. Both are to stand trial in the Court of Justice of the Republic, a special tribunal for past and present members of government, prosecutor Molins said.

François Martineau et Félix de Belloy, Mr Balladur’s lawyer, said his client was “confident in the outcome of this trial in that he never committed any of the acts held against him”.