Nicolas Sarkozy placed under formal investigation
NICOLAS Sarkozy has been placed under formal investigation for allegedly taking advantage of the ailing L'Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt and accepting cash-stuffed brown envelopes from her to illegally fund his 2007 election campaign.
The surprise move came after the former French president was unexpectedly summoned to Bordeaux for a face-to-face encounter in court with staff members of Mrs Bettencourt, 90.
These included Pascal Bonnefoy, the cosmetics heiress's former butler whose secret recording of conversations between his employer and her entourage led to a string of investigations, including one into alleged illegal political funding.
Some 17 people are now under investigation in the complex affair.
During the hearing, the judge questioned Mr Sarkozy, 58, on the reason and frequency of his visits to France's richest woman in the run-up to his election.
The former conservative leader has always maintained that he visited Mrs Bettencourt's residence only once during the campaign to meet her late husband André, contrary to testimony from several members of the billionaire's staff.
Jean-Michel Gentil, the judge in charge of the case, spent 12 hours interrogating Mr Sarkozy in November along with two other examining magistrates.
According to excerpts of his testimony, he said: "I have known the Bettencourts since I was 28-years-old They never gave me a penny, I never gave them one and I never asked them for anything. I was not going to start at 52 as France's president."
The magistrates decided not to formally charge him at that time, instead turning him into a material witness - a status meaning there was no prima facie evidence against Mr Sarkozy but that he remained a suspect, allowing the judges to continue investigating the allegations against him.
But after this latest round of questioning, the judges were clearly less convinced by Mr Sarkozy's account about whether any money changed hands.
Preliminary charges were filed against Mr Sarkozy, meaning the investigating magistrate has reason to believe wrongdoing was committed, but allows more time to investigate. The charges may later be dropped or could lead to a trial.
Mr Sarkozy's lawyer, Thierry Herzog, said he denied any wrongdoing and would appeal the decision to place him under investigation, adding that the move was "incoherent on a judicial level and unfair".
Doctors have concluded that Mrs Bettencourt has had dementia since 2006.
She was placed under the guardianship of her family in 2011.
Mr Sarkozy, it is alleged, obtained large amounts of money from her, simultaneously breaching electoral spending limits – just 4,600 euros for an individual - and taking advantage of a person weakened by ill health.
Mrs Bettencourt's former accountant, Claire Thibout, told police in 2010 that she had handed envelopes stuffed with cash to Mrs Bettencourt's wealth manager, Patrice de Maistre, on the understanding it was to be passed on to Mr Sarkozy's campaign treasurer, Eric Woerth.
Investigators suspect up to four million euros of Mrs Bettencourt's cash subsequently made its way into Mr Sarkozy's party coffers after being withdrawn from a Swiss bank account.
Mr Sarkozy lost his immunity from prosecution when he was defeated in the 2012 presidential election by Socialist Francois Hollande.
He is the second French president to face corruption charges after his predecessor as president, Jacques Chirac, was convicted in 2011 on charges related to his time as mayor of Paris.