Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy faced questions before a court in Bordeaux on Thursday as part of an inquiry into whether he illegally accepted funds for his 2007 presidential campaign from L'Oréal cosmetics heiress Liliane Bettencourt.
Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy went before a Bordeaux court on Thursday to answer questions relating to an investigation into illegal campaign financing claims.
Sarkozy appeared before examining magistrate Jean-Michel Gentil as part of an investigation into whether Sarkozy illegally obtained funding for his 2007 electoral campaign from France's richest woman, elderly L'Oréal heiress Liliane Bettencourt.
Judicial sources have said that the 57-year-old could be formally indicted on a charge of taking advantage of someone in a position of weakness, although the magistrate also has the option of interrogating him as a witness under caution, meaning that any information obtained may be used as evidence against him in any subsequent criminal proceedings.
“What is at stake for the former president today is to learn whether at the end of the day he will be considered a mere witness or if he will be placed under formal investigation,” FRANCE 24 correspondent Nicolas Germain, who is following the case in Bordeaux, explained. “If he is placed under former investigation, the case could go on for several years," he said.
Bettencourt, France's richest woman, is 90 years old and has been in poor health since 2006.
The allegation against Sarkozy is two-fold: that the money obtained from her took his campaign financing over legal limits and that it had been secured without her full knowledge or consent.
This latter claim was made by Bettencourt's former accountant, Claire Thibout, who told police that she had handed 150,000 euros in cash to Bettencourt's right-hand man, Patrice de Maistre, on the understanding that it was to be passed on to Sarkozy's campaign treasurer, Eric Woerth.
Maistre, one of the biggest backers of Sarkozy's UMP party, withdrew a total of four million euros in cash from Bettencourt's Swiss bank account in seven instalments between 2007 and 2009.
"CASE COULD HINDER SARKOZY'S POTENTIAL 2017 PLANS"
Investigators suspect some or all of the money could have found its way to Sarkozy or his party.
In July, the examining magistrate ordered the seizure of Sarkozy's diaries in order to establish what he was doing around the time the cash was being moved.
The Bettencourt case is one of at least two criminal probes in which Sarkozy is embroiled.
French authorities confirmed this week they have also opened a preliminary investigation over the management of opinion polls carried out during his 2007-12 term as president.
That probe was triggered by anti-graft organisation Anticor, which suspects the former president of having handed the contract for the polls to a company, Publifact, run by his former advisor Patrick Buisson, and of using public funds to carry out his own party political electoral research.
Sarkozy is now pursuing a career on the international conference circuit but has not ruled out another tilt at the presidency in 2017. "This case could hamper a potential return to politics for Sarkozy," Germain reported.
Separately, Sarkozy is pursuing a defamation suit against online news website Mediapart over a report that former Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi provided 50 million euros for his 2007 campaign.
Whether or not that is true, Sarkozy subsequently went on to become the architect of the military campaign that ousted Gaddafi from power last year.
That greatly enhanced his international reputation and despite his defeat by Socialist François Hollande in this year's presidential election, he remains very popular with supporters of the UMP, France's main centre-right party.
The UMP this week elected Jean-Francois Copé as its new leader but allegations of ballot rigging marred an acrimonious battle with rival Francois Fillon.
The debacle further enhanced Sarkozy's status as the favourite to be the right's candidate for the 2017 presidential election.
(FRANCE 24 with wires)
Date created : 2012-11-21