Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy has been charged with taking financial advantage of France’s richest woman as part of a probe into illegal party funding, a move supporters say is aimed at preventing his political comeback.
The 58-year-old Sarkozy — who this month made the strongest hint yet that he could be a presidential candidate in 2017 — has repeatedly denied claims he accepted cash-stuffed envelopes from Liliane Bettencourt to fund his successful 2007 campaign.
Bettencourt, the world’s richest woman and heiress to the L’Oreal cosmetics empire, is now 90. Medical experts say her mental capacity began to deteriorate in the autumn of 2006.
Sarkozy’s lawyer, Thierry Herzog, said his client “considers the treatment inflicted upon him as scandalous” and that they would appeal the “unfair and incoherent” decision by judge Jean- Michel Gentil, who is in charge of the case.
Sarkozy was unexpectedly summoned to the Bordeaux offices of Gentil for direct meetings with at least four former members of Bettencourt’s staff.
Gentil was seeking to establish how many times Sarkozy had visited Bettencourt during his campaign.
He has always maintained that he visited her home once during the campaign, to meet her late husband. However, members of her staff have contradicted his version of events.
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.
Investigators suspect up to €4m of Bettencourt’s cash subsequently made its way into the coffers of Sarkozy’s UMP party.
Gentil and two other examining magistrates had spent 12 hours questioning Sarkozy in November. They decided not to charge him then but to continue investigating the allegations.
France’s legal system does not have the same charges or indictments brought in Irish, English, or US courts, but being placed under judicial investigation is the closest equivalent.
Sarkozy faces allegations of obtaining significant amounts of money from Bettencourt, breaching electoral spending limits, and taking advantage of a person weakened by ill health.
Brice Hortefeux, a former minister in the Sarkozy government, denounced the move, saying it came at a time “when dozens of opinion polls show... clearly and strongly that there is a growing confidence in Nicolas Sarkozy”.
Sarkozy’s former prime minister François Fillon added: “I am astounded by this decision to charge him, which seems to me to be as unjust as it is excessive.”
Sarkozy lost immunity from prosecution when he was defeated in the 2012 presidential election by Socialist François Hollande.
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.
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, who was excused from attending his trial due to his ill health, received a two-year suspended prison sentence.
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