Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy was named a material witness by judges investigating claims that people close to Liliane Bettencourt took advantage of the 90-year-old’s mental frailty to get at her fortune.
Sarkozy escaped being charged in the matter after 12 hours of grilling yesterday by the three judges, according to his lawyer Thierry Herzog and the Bordeaux prosecutors.
“At the end of this appearance, Mr. Nicolas Sarkozy found himself declared a material witness,” according to an e-mailed statement from the prosecutors. That classification places him between a simple witness and a target of the matter.
The judges questioned Sarkozy on allegations the L’Oreal SA heiress was victim to abuses of her mental frailty, abuses of trust and fraud, according to the statement. Witnesses in the case who used to work for Bettencourt claimed to have seen Sarkozy at her home and that cash was passed on to help fund his 2007 presidential campaign.
Sarkozy has denied any wrongdoing, saying in April that “there’s not a penny whose origin is unaccounted for” from that campaign. Sarkozy has also acknowledged visiting the Bettencourt home in 2007, while saying he was there just once that year, in February to see Andre Bettencourt, her husband.
Sarkozy lost his bid for re-election in May, lifting the immunity that accompanies the post of president in France. He is the second former president in France’s modern era to face questioning in a criminal investigation after leaving office. His predecessor, Jacques Chirac, was found guilty of corruption during his time as mayor of Paris prior to his term as president, receiving a suspended jail sentence in December.
Jean-Michel Gentil, the lead judge in the investigations, led police on searches of Sarkozy’s Paris home and offices in July, seizing agendas to help trace meetings with the Bettencourts and their representatives. Sarkozy was out of the country at the time of the searches.
Andre Bettencourt’s death in November 2007 set in motion a family dispute over how his widow, heir to the L’Oreal founder and France’s richest woman, according to the Bloomberg Billionaire’s Index, disposed of her fortune and whether she was mentally fit to make such decisions.
The Bordeaux investigations stem from that quarrel. Bettencourt is now under the court-ordered care of her family.
Bettencourt’s former financial adviser, Patrice de Maistre, and Eric Woerth, the treasurer of Sarkozy’s party during the campaign and a former budget minister, have been charged in the case. Both men deny the allegations. De Maistre said in an interview in the Journal du Dimanche on Nov. 11 that he never gave money to either Woerth or Sarkozy.
In total, over a dozen people have been charged in the probes spawned by the affair, Agence France-Presse said. The Bordeaux prosecutors’ office refused to confirm the number.