• France edition
 
'Abuse' charges threaten Sarkozy comeback
File photo: World Economic Forum

'Abuse' charges threaten Sarkozy comeback

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

The life of former president Nicolas Sarkozy took a sensational turn on Thursday when he was charged with taking financial advantage of Lilian Bettencourt, his lawyer confirmed. Sarkozy is set to appeal the decision.

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.

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.

Don't miss...X
Left Right

Your comments about this article

Today's headlines
Euro hunt for French girl ends in her hometown
Europe-wide search for missing French girl ends in her hometown. Photo: AFP

Euro hunt for French girl ends in her hometown

A Europe-wide hunt for a missing 15-year-old French girl ended in her hometown on Friday where she was located with a 48-year-old family friend who was suspected of abducting her. Police believed the friend was suicidal. READ () »

French MP proposes puppy custody law
A French lawmaker wants puppies looked after in case of a divorce. Photo: Robbee/Flickr

French MP proposes puppy custody law

Who gets custody of a dog after a divorce? A French lawmaker has proposed a bill to create a legal framework to answer precisely that and other tricky questions surrounding pets. READ () »

Threat letter to French mosque praises far right
A mosque in the Paris suburbs has gotten a threat tied to the recent election of far-right National Front mayor. Photo: Miguel Medina/AFP

Threat letter to French mosque praises far right

After pork products turned up in the mailbox of a suburban Paris mosque along with a threatening letter praising the town's recently elected far-right National Front mayor, muslims are concerned about a "worrying" local shift. READ () »

'Slavery' protesters slash hundreds of Velib' tires
Hundreds of Velib' bike tires slashed in 'slavery' protest. Photo: Cyril Folliot/AFP

'Slavery' protesters slash hundreds of Velib' tires

Far-left activists slashed the tires on over 360 Velib’ bikes in Paris this week in protest of the ‘slave’ labour the programme’s operator uses to repair vandalized bikes. The vandals could themselves end up 'slave' labour. READ () »

New scandal means more bad news for president
France's president was smacked with his administration's latest embarrassing scandal. Photo: Alain Jocard/AFP

New scandal means more bad news for president

The latest blow to struggling President François Hollande came on Friday when a close aide quit over allegations he'd used taxpayer money to support a posh lifestyle and appeared to have breached conflict of interest barriers. READ () »

French bank bosses to explain 'indecent' pay
France's economy minister wants bank bosses to explain their "indecent" pay. Photo: Lionel Bonaventure/AFP

French bank bosses to explain 'indecent' pay

France’s economy minister, outraged by huge pay hikes the bosses of the country’s biggest banks have awarded themselves in the past year, called the chiefs to a meeting to “explain” their “indecent” pay. READ () »

Eurostar: Major train delays after two incidents
Multiple incident snarl Eurostar traffic during Easter rush. Photo: Denis Charlet/AFP

Eurostar: Major train delays after two incidents

Hundreds of travelers on Eurostar trains between Paris and London saw hours of delays and cancellations on Thursday night due to back-to-back technical and fatal incidents. Service was supposed to be back to normal on Friday. READ () »

Police finish DNA sweep in hunt for school rapist
Police have finished an unprecedented DNA collection in the hunt for a rapist. Photo: Xavier Leoty/AFP

Police finish DNA sweep in hunt for school rapist

All 527 male students and staff at a private school in France have turned over their DNA as part of an unprecedented hunt for whoever raped a girl in a campus bathroom. One student who'd refused relented under prosecutors' pressure. READ () »

‘France needs to change its response to crime’
France prison's have hit a new record for overcrowding. Photo: Damien Meyer/AFP

‘France needs to change its response to crime’

This month France had more prisoners behind bars than ever before in its history, according to statistics unveiled on Thursday. An expert on the country's penal system told The Local that Sarkozy-era sentencing laws are largely to blame. READ () »

Burgundy 'will be ruined by wind farms'
Will Burgundy's worldwide reputation suffer because of windfarms? Photo: Jeff Pachoud/AFP

Burgundy 'will be ruined by wind farms'

The famous Burgundy region of France is synonymous with its vineyards but its image will soon be ruined, campaigners say, by the planned construction of new wind turbines. They say their chances of gaining UNESCO world heritage status are threatened. READ () »

RECEIVE OUR NEWSLETTER AND ALERTS
Society
VIDEO: Take a look inside Paris’s first luxury hotel for cats
Education
French parents are the most laidback about their kids' education. True?
Tech
What do French TV viewers complain about the most? Yes it's English
Business & Money
French tax declarations: The key points to remember
Gallery
French slang: Everyday words you need to know (but use cautiously)
National
Paris cops told to ‘purge’ Roma from posh neighbourhood
International
VIDEO: ‘Anti-French’ Cadillac ad sparks anger in France. See why.
Features
Buying property in France? Here's 10 things you need to think about
National
What will the future map of France look like? The answer lies within.
Politics
'The 27 French regions aren't the problem, it's the 36,000 towns'
Culture
Ex underage call girl Zahia picked to embody Marie Antoinette
Gallery
Buying a house in France? Ten things you need to think about
Advertisement:
National
France bans work emails after 6pm! Sadly it's not quite true.
Opinion
Reader Rants: Why don't the French do charity? Is it down to taxes?
Society
VIDEO: The Paris zoo is back but this time the animals are in charge
National
This will be the most expensive road in France - Only €1.66bn for 12km!
Society
Only in France? Gourmet pensioners party lands village in hot water
National
What's the worst thing to do when you realise you're on the wrong train?
From showers to kissing: Anglos tell Twitter what's weird about France
National
'A big quake will hit France and there will be casualties' - Scientist warns
Culture
After all the dozens of books is France still worth writing about?
Sponsored Article
Why it pays to avoid banks when making overseas transfers
Opinion
Paris or the suburbs - where would you live?
National
VIDEO: Walk the line - crossing the Seine on a tightrope
Latest news from The Local in Switzerland

More news from Switzerland at thelocal.ch

Latest news from The Local in Germany

More news from Germany at thelocal.de

Latest news from The Local in Spain

More news from Spain at thelocal.es

Latest news from The Local in Italy

More news from Italy at thelocal.it

Latest news from The Local in Norway

More news from Norway at thelocal.no

Latest news from The Local in Sweden

More news from Sweden at thelocal.se