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France

Sarkozy questioned over presidential campaign funding allegations

Reuters/Regis Duvignau

Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy appeared before a judge in Thursday to answer charges that his 2007 presidential campaign was partly financed by illegal donations from France’s richest woman, Liliane Bettencourt.

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Sarkozy arrived at the court in Bordeaux in a grey minivan just before 9.15 am on Thursday, having flown into the city’s airport in a private jet.

The allegations against Sarkozy are twofold:

First, that the money he received from the 90-year-old L’Oréal heiress to finance his 2007 presidential campaign took him over legal funding limits;
Second, that his campaign organisers took advantage of Bettencourt’s age and state of health to extract sums of which she was not fully aware.

During the inquiry Bettencourt’s former accountant, Claire Thibout, told police that she was instructed to give 150,000 euros in cash to Bettencourt’s right-hand man, Patrice de Maistre, in 2007 and that the money was passed on to Sarkozy’s campaign treasurer, Eric Woerth.

Maistre withdrew a total of four million euros in cash from Bettencourt’s Swiss bank account in seven instalments between 2007 and 2009 and investigators say that some, or even all of the money may have found its way to Sarkozy.

The courts have since seized Sarkozy’s diaries to find out exactly what he was doing at the time the money was moved.

Examining magistrate Jean-Michel Gentil is expected to question Sarkozy about how he obtained Bettencourt’s cash.

Gentil has the choice of charging him with taking advantage of someone in a position of weakness or interrogating him as a witness under caution, leaving his options open for later action against the former president.

He will also look into allegations that Sarkozy used his influence to put pressure on previous investigators, including Nanterre prosecutor Philippe Courroye who was in charge of the case until 2010 when it was transferred to Bordeaux.

Sarkozy declared that he was retiring for politics after he failed to be reelected this year but the current chaos over the succession to the head of his UMP has led to a certain Sarkozy-nostalgia in the mainstream right-wing party's ranks.

An unfavourable legal decision could put paid to his fans' hopes.

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