• France's news in English
 
app_header_v3
'Abuse' charges threaten Sarkozy comeback
File photo: World Economic Forum

'Abuse' charges threaten Sarkozy comeback

AFP · 21 Mar 2013, 23:40

Published: 21 Mar 2013 18:12 GMT+01:00
Updated: 21 Mar 2013 23:40 GMT+01:00

Former president Nicolas Sarkozy has been charged with taking financial advantage of France'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. Members of the multi-billionaire's staff have, however, 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.

Back in November, 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 English, 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.

CLICK HERE FOR AN IN-DEPTH PROFILE OF LILIANE BETTENCOURT

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 of Bettencourt's cash subsequently made its way into the coffers of Sarkozy's UMP party.

Sarkozy lost immunity from prosecution when he was defeated in the 2012 presidential election by Socialist François Hollande.

French judges have already successfully pursued Sarkozy's predecessor as president, Jacques Chirac, who was convicted in 2011 on corruption charges related to his time as mayor of Paris.

Chirac, excused from attending his trial because of ill health, received a two-year suspended prison term.

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 country could see him return to the political arena.

During his presidency he won international acclaim as the principal architect of the 2011 NATO campaign that ousted Libyan dictator Moamer Kadhafi.

But 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.

Story continues below…

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.

He has always denied any wrongdoing and remains popular with right-wing activists despite being regarded as a divisive figure among the swing voters who tend to decide French elections.

Anyone convicted of exploiting a person's weakened mental state can be punished by up to three years in jail, fined up to €375,000, and banned from holding public office for up to five years.

Sarkozy's troubles come just two days after France's budget minister Jerome Cahuzac resigned on Tuesday, as prosecutors announced a full criminal inquiry into allegations that he had an undeclared bank account in Switzerland.

Edwy Plenel, co-founder of the Mediapart news website, which first ran the allegations against Cahuzac, told AFP: "This week shows the usefulness of independent journalism, which is very much in the public interest."

Mediapart has also taken a leading role covering the Bettencourt affair.

Your comments about this article

Today's headlines
15-hour tailbacks in UK as France heightens checks
The local Kent Police force said there was a 12-mile tailback, which it put down to a “vast volume of holiday traffic”. Photo: AFP

British officials were drafted in to help French border police on Sunday after 15-hour queues built up at the port of Dover due to heightened entry checks.

15 injured in Welsh bus accident in France
The bus ended on its side in a ditch. Two helicopters were dispatched to the site. Photo: AFP

UPDATED: Fifteen people were injured, two of them seriously, when a bus carrying teenagers from Wales rolled over on a motorway in eastern France on Saturday, the local gendarmerie said.

Libya armed groups urge fight against French troops
Dozens of protesters rallied Friday outside the GNA’s former headquarters in a Tripoli navy base. Photo: AFP

Armed groups including Islamists have urged Libyans to mobilise against French and other foreign troops deployed in the country, denouncing their presence as a “blatant aggression”.

EgyptAir flight broke up midair after fire: report
The Airbus A320 was en route from Paris to Cairo when it disappeared from radar over the Mediterranean. Photo: AFP

An EgyptAir flight that crashed into the Mediterranean in May likely broke up in midair after a fire erupted in or near the cockpit, the New York Times has reported.

IMF boss Lagarde to stand trial over $400 million payout
Lagarde will be the third successive IMF chief to face trial. Photo: AFP

IMF chief Christine Lagarde was ordered Friday to stand trial in France over a massive state payout to a colourful tycoon when she was French economy minister, dealing a setback to her stellar career.

Hollande defends minister under fire over Nice attack
The Nice assault was the third major attack on French soil in the past 18 months. Photo: AFP

French President Francois Hollande on Friday defended his government from accusations it relaxed its anti-terror defences after the Euro championships, and announced plans to arm the fight against the Islamic State group which claimed the Nice attack.

Why was Nice ordered to delete CCTV images of attack?
Photo: AFP

The fact that city authorities in Nice were asked to delete images of the truck attack has only given weight to those criticizing the government.

Thirteen free and easy ways to learn French
Photo: Runs With Scissors/Flickr

Struggling to learn French? Here are some free and easy ways to help you conquer the language once and for all.

32 mistakes foreigners make when they arrive in France
Photo: Tatyana A./Flickr

How many of these have you committed?

France to supply Iraq artillery as it steps up fight against Isis
Photo: AFP

France is stepping up its battle against Isis in the Middle East.

Sponsored Article
5 reasons to try dating in Paris with The Inner Circle
Features
Six outdoor bars in Paris you simply must visit
Sponsored Article
Why you should attend an international job fair
Culture
The open-air Villette cinema has been cancelled over security fears
Culture
Henri Rousseau exhibition proves huge hit in Paris
National
Frenchman caught trying to sell Nice massacre souvenirs online
Society
OPEN NOW: Here's why you should head to the Paris Plages
Culture
What's on in France: Still plenty to see and do in July
Lifestyle
Treasures of Versailles to go on display in Australia
Sponsored Article
Avoid hidden fees when sending money overseas
National
How to keep cool during France's heatwave
Sponsored Article
Why Swiss hospitality graduates are in demand
National
Nice attack: What we know so far
National
Nice attacker: Body-building, drug-taking, violent flirt
National
IN IMAGES: Drawings in tribute to Nice attack victims
Sponsored Article
Why expats choose international health insurance
Society
Promenade des Anglais: The iconic heart of the French Riviera
France faces more questions after latest deadly attack
National
Why is France the target of choice for jihadist attacks?
Sponsored Article
Why you should attend an international job fair
National
Nice truck attack: 'Bodies went flying like bowling pins'
Nice attack: Families of missing make pleas on Twitter
Politics
Boris Johnson cheered and booed at Bastille Day party
Sponsored Article
Why Swiss hospitality graduates are in demand
National
Ten reasons not to leave Paris this summer
Ten ways other expats in France drive you mad
Sponsored Article
Why expats choose international health insurance
'Very Stupid' village in France honoured for its silly name
Travel
Ten crazy things to do in France if you dare
Society
Paris: an obstacle course for wheelchair users
Brits ignore Brexit fears to make dream move to France
2,765
jobs available