A political and legal brawl broke out in France today after the former President Nicolas Sarkozy was placed under investigation for “abusing” the mental weakness of one of the world’s richest woman.
Supporters and friends of Mr Sarkozy attacked the decision by an independent investigating magistrate as a “dishonourable” and politically motivated “persecution”.
A magistrates’ union in turn threatened to sue senior centre-right politicians for launching “illegal” and “abject” attacks on the independence of the justice system.
Late on Thursday night, Judge Jean-Michel Gentil, an investigating magistrate based in Bordeaux, produced what French newspapers described as a “political earthquake” and a “thunderbolt”.
He placed Mr Sarkozy, 58, under formal investigation for the alleged “abuse” of the mental frailty of Liliane Bettencourt, now 90, by badgering the L’Oréal cosmetics heiress for campaign funds during his successful presidential run in 2007.
In other words, the judge accused the former president not of illegal campaign financing but of taking advantage of the frail mental state of an elderly billionaire.
Mr Sarkozy’s senior supporters were indignant that their hero – nominally retired from politics after his defeat last spring – should face such a serious and humiliating accusation. If found guilty, which is far from certain, Mr Sarkozy could face up to three years in jail and a five-year ban from public life.
Henri Guaino, Mr Sarkozy former speech-writer and now a centre-right MP, said Judge Gentil had “dishonoured” the former president but also the country and its justice system.
The judge’s surname means “nice”, but he has a reputation for toughness bordering on severity.
Patrick Balkany, the mayor of Levallois-Perret near Paris and one of Mr Sarkozy’s oldest friends, told French radio the ruling was “politically driven” and intended to distract attention from the recent resignation of the Socialist budget minister, Jérôme Cahuzac, after he was accused of tax evasion. When a lawyer on the same radio show protested, Mr Balkany said on air: “I don’t give a s*** what you say.”
The “Bettencourt affair” is one of several cases in which Mr Sarkozy faces possible criminal investigation after his five years in power. The saga began in 2008 when Ms Bettencourt’s only daughter, Françoise Bettencourt- Meyers, brought a legal action alleging that her mother was being fleeced by her advisers and her entourage.
Last November Judge Gentil appeared to have cleared Mr Sarkozy of direct suspicion. After 12 hours of questioning, he made Mr Sarkozy an “assisted witness” in his investigation – not quite a suspect but not quite in the clear either.
On Thursday, against all expectations, Judge Gentil ordered Mr Sarkozy back to his offices in Bordeaux. In November the former President stated on oath that he had visited the Bettencourt mansion only once during the 2007 campaign – and then to visit Ms Bettencourt’s ailing husband, André. Mr Sarkozy also told the judge he had “never asked for and never received a sou” from Ms Bettencourt.
On Thursday, Mr Sarkozy was confronted face-to-face in private with four former members of Ms Bettencourt’s staff, including her former butler. All of them said he had made several visits to Ms Bettencourt around February 2007. At least two of them said they were told at the time that he was seeking secret – and therefore illegal – campaign contributions.
As a result, Mr Sarkozy has been mis en examen – placed under formal investigation – for abuse of Ms Bettencort’s frailty. A medical study concluded last year that she had been suffering from a form of Alzheimer’s disease since December 2006.
Nine other people have already been placed under investigation by Judge Gentil, including Ms Bettencourt’s long-time friend, the society photographer François-Marie Banier, who is accused of receiving €1bn (£850m) in dubious “gifts”.
The judge is expected to wrap up his investigation in the next few weeks and recommend that most of these suspects – including Mr Sarkozy – should be sent for trial.