Former French President Sarkozy Probed Over Campaign Cash From Heiress

People walk past a vandalized election poster showing former French President Nicolas Sarkozy in 2012 Photograph by Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who’s been hinting he’ll seek a comeback from his reelection defeat last year, was placed under formal investigation March 21 for allegedly taking advantage of the mental frailty of L’Oréal heiress Liliane Bettencourt to obtain money for his 2007 election campaign.

The investigation of alleged criminal wrongdoing—which Sarkozy’s lawyer vehemently denied—was filed on March 21 after a confrontation in a judge’s chambers between Sarkozy and former employees of Bettencourt, according to French media reports. The ex-president said he visited the Bettencourt home only once, to meet the heiress’s husband, who died in 2007. Her former employees, however, said he visited Madame Bettencourt repeatedly to seek cash.

Prosecutors have placed Sarkozy under formal investigation for alleged “abuse of frailty” of Bettencourt, Europe’s richest woman, with an estimated net worth of $30 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. The heiress, now 90, had to surrender control of her finances to her daughter in 2011 after a court ruled she suffered from dementia. If convicted, Sarkozy could face up to three years in prison and €375,000 ($487,000) in fines.

Sarkozy’s lawyer, Thierry Herzog, in an interview this morning on RTL radio called the accusation “scandalous” and promised to appeal it. “We have nothing to hide,” Herzog said. “A judge can make a mistake. This judge has made a mistake,” he said, referring to the investigating magistrate who has led the probe.

The allegations against Sarkozy grew out of a sensational case that began in 2007, when Bettencourt’s family accused François-Marie Banier, a Paris photographer, of manipulating the much older heiress to obtain more than $1 billion in gifts from her. (Banier later agreed to an out-of-court deal to return many of the gifts.)

During the Banier probe, Bettencourt’s former butler turned over more than 21 hours of secret recordings he had made of conversations between the heiress, her financial advisers, and visitors to her mansion in the Paris suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine. The name of Eric Woerth, who was Sarkozy’s campaign treasurer and then served in his Cabinet, came up frequently in the conversations. Bettencourt’s accountant later came forward to say that Patrice de Maistre, the heiress’s chief financial adviser, had told her in 2007 that he was giving €150,000 in cash to Woerth for Sarkozy’s campaign. That’s 20 times the legal limit for individual political donations in France.

Sarkozy and Woerth denied any such payment was made, but Sarkozy asked Woerth to step down as treasurer of the center-right UMP party. Woerth and De Maistre have since been formally placed under investigation for influence-peddling. Both have denied the charges, which are still pending.

Could this tangled story end Sarkozy’s political hopes? Maybe not. In France, criminal charges—and even convictions—do not always spell political death.

One of the first people to spring to Sarkozy’s defense today was former French Prime Minister Alain Juppé, who was convicted in 2004 of misusing public funds. He received a suspended 14-month jail sentence and was barred from holding public office for a year. Juppé then returned to office, becoming mayor of Bordeaux and later a member of Sarkozy’s Cabinet.

Jacques Chirac, Sarkozy’s predecessor, was reelected in 2002 despite being under investigation for alleged corruption. After leaving office, he was convicted and given a two-year suspended sentence. And Harlem Desir, the chief of France’s ruling Socialist Party and a European parliamentary deputy, was convicted in 1998 and given a suspended 18-month sentence for accepting a salary for a fictitious government job in the city of Lille.

Sarkozy certainly seems interested in returning to public life. Just this month he told the conservative magazine Valeurs Actuelles in an interview that it was his “duty” to consider doing so, because of the economic and social crisis facing France. Socialist President François Hollande’s popularity has plummeted since he defeated Sarkozy last May to win a five-year term, with more than two-thirds of voters in a recent poll saying they’re unhappy with him.

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