Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy has been charged by a Bordeaux court with “exploiting the weakness” of the world’s richest woman, L’Oréal heiress Liliane Bettencourt, in a long-running scandal linked to illegal political donations.
The move came after Sarkozy was unexpectedly summoned for a face-to-face encounter with members of Bettencourt’s staff over claims he accepted envelopes stuffed with cash from Bettencourt, which were illegally used to finance his 2007 election campaign.
Sarkozy’s lawyer Thierry Herzog said his client would be “fighting back immediately” against the charge.
Sarkozy, 58, has always maintained that he visited Bettencourt’s residence only once during the campaign, contrary to testimony from several members of the multi-millionaire’s staff.
Judge Jean-Michel Gentil and two other examining magistrates spent 12 hours interrogating Sarkozy in November. They decided not to formally charge him but to continue investigating the allegations against him.
Bettencourt is now 90 and has been in poor health since 2006. Sarkozy, it is alleged, obtained significant amounts of money from her, simultaneously breaching electoral spending limits and taking advantage of a person weakened by ill health.
Bettencourt’s former accountant, Claire Thibout, told police in 2010 that she had handed envelopes stuffed with cash to Bettencourt’s right-hand man, Patrice de Maistre, on the understanding it was to be passed on to Sarkozy’s campaign treasurer, Eric Woerth.
Investigators suspect that up to four million euros of Bettencourt’s cash subsequently made its way into Sarkozy’s party coffers.
Sarkozy lost his immunity from prosecution when he was defeated in the 2012 presidential election by Socialist François Hollande.
French judges demonstrated their readiness to go after former leaders with their successful pursuit of Sarkozy’s presidential predecessor, Jacques Chirac, who was convicted in 2011 on corruption charges related to his time as mayor of Paris.
Sarkozy faces up to three years in prison, a fine of 375,000 euros and a five-year exclusion from politics if he is found guilty.
The reactions to the charges against Sarkozy from both sides of the political spectrum were immediate.
Christian Estrosi, mayor of Nice and a close associate of the former president, said that the charges “were obviously timed to cover up for the opening of an inquiry into Socialist politician [Jérôme Cahuzac]”.
Meanwhile, Noël Mammère from the Green Party (in coalition with the ruling Socialists), told France 24: “Justice has finally caught up with Sarkozy after five years of immunity while he was head of state.”