Sarkozy is not above the law any more

Ex-French president's campaign finances are being probed and he is not getting an easy ride. By John Lichfield

The humiliating police raids on Nicolas Sarkozy's home and offices this week were intended to send a blunt message to the former president: "Don't mess with the judicial system. You are no longer above the law." Mr Sarkozy and Carla Bruni-Sarkozy were on holiday in Canada when Judge Jean-Michel Gentil came calling at dawn on Tuesday with two other judges and 10 police officers. But Judge Gentil made sure that ex-President Sarkozy knew what was happening.

The investigating judge instructed the housekeeper at Ms Bruni-Sarkozy's mansion in western Paris to rouse the former president in Canada, just after midnight local time, to inform him of the raid. Two hours later, Mr Sarkozy was woken a second time to inform him that the judge was searching for incriminating documents at his post-presidential offices in central Paris.

No former French president has been subjected to judicial raids of this kind. Although ex-President Jacques Chirac was successfully prosecuted last year for embezzlement of town hall funds to finance his political career in the 1980s and 1990s, he was never "raided" by investigators in this way. Mr Sarkozy annoyed Judge Gentil last month by orchestrating press coverage suggesting he was "in the clear" in the sprawling "Bettencourt affair". The raids were the judge's way of telling Mr Sarkozy that, au contraire, he was at the centre of his investigations. The judge is expected to summon the former president for questioning on the alleged illegal financing of his successful 2007 election campaign. Mr Sarkozy, defeated in his attempt to win a second term on 6 May, lost his presidential immunity from prosecution – and questioning – on 16 June. It remains to be seen whether he will be questioned as a "witness" or a "suspect witness" or placed under formal investigation – one step short of a charge – for breaking electoral law. If prosecuted and convicted, Mr Sarkozy could be jailed. He would be more likely to receive a suspended sentence, like his former mentor, Mr Chirac.

Accounts differed yesterday of what Judge Gentil discovered during his raids. According to one account, the investigators removed nothing from Ms Bruni-Sarkozy's home but seized a computer containing records of Mr Sarkozy's activities in 2007 from his publicly funded ex-presidential office near the Elysée Palace. The judge is also reported to have seized the original of Mr Sarkozy's 2007 appointments diary. The former president let it be known two weeks ago that he had "pre-empted" any probe by sending the judge a copy of this diary. By seizing the original, Judge Gentil was, in effect, saying he did not necessarily accept the copy was genuine.

The investigation is one of an extraordinary cat's cradle of criminal inquiries which flow from a four-year-old feud within one of Europe's richest families. In December 2008, Liliane Bettencourt, 89, daughter of the founder of the cosmetics giant L'Oréal, was accused by her daughter of falling under the malign influence of a gay playboy photographer, François-Marie Banier. Mr Banier later agreed to return most of the €1.2bn in cash, artworks and life insurance policies Ms Bettencourt had given to him. He is, nonetheless, under formal investigation by Judge Gentil for "abusing" Ms Bettencourt's mental weakness. So are several of her former financial and legal advisers. Others formally accused in four separate inquiries include journalists who are alleged to have invaded Ms Bettencourt's private life and an investigating judge alleged to have leaked details to the press.

The political aspects of the affair emerged two years ago when a French magazine and a website published the transcript of conversations recorded in 2007 and 2008 by a bug installed by Ms Bettencourt's butler. Parts of the conversations hinted at the payment by Ms Bettencourt of cash sums over the €4,600 permitted limit to Mr Sarkozy's presidential campaign. The then President dismissed the allegations.

Judge Gentil, entrusted with this aspect of the affair in 2010, has doggedly pursued his investigations. Under the French judicial system, an investigating judge has considerable powers. For almost three months – a staggering period, even for France – Ms Bettencourt's former financial adviser, Patrice de Maistre, 63, was kept in custody by Judge Gentil in an attempt to persuade him to talk about Ms Bettencourt's alleged payments to Mr Sarkozy.

Testimony by a Swiss lawyer and other members of Ms Bettencourt's entourage and entries in a diary seized by the judge point to the possibility of cash payments of up to €400,000 between January and April 2007. Until finally released last month, Mr de Maistre repeatedly denied that the cash was paid to Mr Sarkozy's campaign or to Mr Sarkozy in person. A diary kept by Mr Banier quotes Ms Bettencourt as saying in April 2007: "De Maistre told me that Sarkozy had asked for more money. I said yes. How do I know if he really gives it to him?"

Mr Sarkozy is alleged to have visited Ms Bettencourt and her husband a few days later , a visit which he denies and which does not show up in his diary.

The former President faces several other possible investigations, including media allegations that he accepted campaign funds from Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi. Little or no proof exists of this. His name has also emerged in a judicial investigation into alleged payments of kick-backs to the 1995 presidential campaign of his former mentor, Edouard Balladur.