Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy has been charged with taking financial advantage of the nation’s richest woman, as part of a probe into illegal party funding that could shatter his hopes of a political comeback.
His lawyers said they would appeal against the decision to formally investigate Sarkozy over allegations he took advantage of elderly L’Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt when she was weakened by poor health.
He was unexpectedly summoned on Thursday to the Bordeaux offices of Jean-Michel Gentil, the judge in charge of the case, for face-to-face encounters with at least four former members of Bettencourt’s staff.
The surprise confrontation came over claims he had accepted envelopes stuffed with cash from the world’s richest woman to fund his 2007 election campaign.
Gentil was seeking to establish how many times Sarkozy had visited Bettencourt during his successful campaign.
Sarkozy, 58, has always maintained that he visited Bettencourt’s residence only once during the campaign, to meet her late husband. However, members of the multibillionaire’s staff have contradicted his version of events.
Sarkozy’s lawyer Thierry Herzog lambasted the decision to pursue his client as “legally incoherent and unfair.” He said he would immediately initiate proceedings to have the charges dropped.
In November last year, Gentil and two other examining magistrates spent 12 hours questioning Sarkozy. They decided not to formally charge him then, but to continue investigating the allegations against him.
France’s legal system has nothing that exactly matches the charges or indictments brought in British or US courts, but an investigating judge’s decision to place someone under judicial investigation is the closest equivalent.
Bettencourt is now 90. Medical experts say her mental capacity began to deteriorate from the autumn of 2006.
The allegation is that Sarkozy obtained significant amounts of money from her, breaching electoral spending limits and taking advantage of a person weakened by ill health.
Bettencourt’s former accountant, Claire Thibout, told police in 2010 she had handed envelopes filled with cash to Bettencourt’s right-hand man, Patrice de Maistre, on the understanding it was to be passed on to Sarkozy’s campaign treasurer, Eric Woerth. Woerth has already been charged in the affair.
Investigators suspect up to 4 million euros (US$5.2 million) of Bettencourt’s cash subsequently made its way into the coffers of Sarkozy’s Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) party.
Sarkozy lost immunity from prosecution when he was defeated in last year’s presidential election by Francois Hollande.
Since losing to Hollande, Sarkozy has concentrated on making money on the international conference circuit, but he has repeatedly hinted that he is considering another tilt at the presidency in 2017.
Earlier this month, he told Valeurs Actuelles magazine that his sense of duty to his nation could see him return to the political arena.
However, since losing office he has had to contend with a string of allegations relating to his five years in power and various electoral campaigns he has been involved in.
As well as the Bettencourt case, he faces probes into alleged cronyism in the awarding of contracts for opinion polls; an illegal police investigation into journalists; and alleged kickbacks on a Pakistani arms deal used to finance the right in 1995, when Sarkozy was budget minister.