Sarkozy escapes charge, probe continues

2012-11-23 08:12
Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy and his wife Carla Bruni-Sarkozy. (File, AP)

Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy and his wife Carla Bruni-Sarkozy. (File, AP)

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Bordeaux - Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy has escaped indictment but will continue to be investigated over allegations that his 2007 election campaign was financed with funds secured illegally from the country's richest woman.

After more than 12 hours of interrogation, a panel of three examining magistrates decided late on Thursday to treat Sarkozy as a witness under caution rather than formally charging him.

The decision will allow the former leader to retain hope he will eventually be completely exonerated of accusations he denies. But it also means the magistrates believe there are grounds for further investigation, a stance that deals a significant blow to Sarkozy's hopes of staging a political comeback.

The conviction last year of his predecessor Jacques Chirac on corruption charges related to his time as mayor of Paris demonstrated that French courts are willing to go after former leaders.

Sarkozy's lawyer, Thierry Herzog, said he hoped the judges would now leave his client in peace.

"There were no charges," Herzog said. "It is a victory for justice more than for one man. In legal terms hopefully that is the end of these suspicions, these baseless accusations in the press."

String of allegations

Patrick Balkany, a close associate of Sarkozy, said his friend was "relieved and happy" to have escaped charges, temporarily at least.

Sarkozy, who is married to former supermodel Carla Bruni, won international acclaim as the principal architect of last year's military campaign against Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi.

But since losing to Francois Hollande in the presidential election earlier this year, he has had to battle a string of allegations relating to his time in office and various electoral campaigns he has been involved in.

The suspicion at the centre of Thursday's interrogation is that he took financial advantage of elderly L'Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt when she was too frail to fully understand what she was doing.

Bettencourt is now 90 years old and has been in poor health since 2006. Sarkozy, it is alleged, obtained significant amounts of money from her for his 2007 campaign, simultaneously breaching electoral spending limits and taking advantage of a person weakened by ill health.

Bettencourt's former accountant, Claire Thibout, told police in 2010 that she had handed envelopes stuffed 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.

Alleged kickbacks

Investigators suspect up to €4m of Bettencourt's cash subsequently made its way into Sarkozy's party coffers.

Sarkozy, who lost his immunity from prosecution after losing to Hollande, is embroiled in a string of scandals with legal repercussions.

As well as the Bettencourt case, he faces probes into 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 has not ruled out another tilt at the presidency in 2017 amid signs that his party, the UMP, is on the point of disintegration.

A vote intended to produce a new leader for the centre-right party descended into chaos this week with ex-prime minister Francois Fillon contesting the result of a poll edged by party secretary-general Jean-Francois Cope.

With the party split down the middle, many party activists are calling for Sarkozy to return to the fray, but Thursday night's ruling suggests he might be otherwise engaged for some time to come.

Read more on:    l'oreal  |  liliane bettencourt  |  nicolas sarkozy  |  france
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