A French magistrate has uncovered new evidence that suggests President Nicolas Sarkozy's 2007 presidential campaign received €800,000 (£670,000) in illegal funding from the L'Oréal cosmetics heiress, Liliane Bettencourt.
As David Cameron seeks to defuse a dispute about party funding in Britain, Mr Sarkozy faces a potentially far more serious financing scandal four weeks before voters go to the polls in a new presidential campaign.
An independent magistrate investigating the sprawling "Bettencourt affair" has traced two €400,000 cash transfers from Switzerland in 2007 which, he suspects, provided illegal funds for Mr Sarkozy's successful run for the presidency.
In documents leaked to two newspapers, the magistrate, Jean-Michel Gentil, says he is investigating the possibility that the first payment, in February 2007, was handed over in a Paris bar to Mr Sarkozy's campaign treasurer, Eric Woerth. Mr Gentil also says he is investigating circumstantial evidence that a second €400,000 payment could have been handed to Mr Sarkozy himself.
As part of his inquiries, the magistrate has seized a diary kept by Ms Bettencourt's friend, the playboy photographer François-Marie Banier. On 26 April 2007 – the same day as the second €400,000 cash transfer – Mr Banier's diary records that the L'Oréal heiress told him: "Sarkozy has asked for money again. I said yes." Other witnesses have told Mr Gentil that Mr Sarkozy spent 15 minutes alone with Ms Bettencourt's late husband, André, during the election campaign that spring.
Claims of illegal funding of Mr Sarkozy's campaign by France's wealthiest woman first emerged two years ago as part of a complex family and legal squabble over the alleged abuse of the octogenarian heiress's feeble state of mind by Mr Banier and other members of her entourage. At the time, Mr Sarkozy angrily rejected the allegations of illicit political funding as baseless.
Mr Gentil is an independent investigating magistrate based in Bordeaux who was appointed to examine the financial and political aspects of the L'Oréal family feud. He has already started judicial investigations against, amongst others, Mr Woerth, Mr Banier and Ms Bettencourt's former financial manager, Patrice de Maistre. Last Thursday, the judge arrested Mr de Maistre for a second time. Over the past four days, Mr Gentil has been questioning Mr de Maistre about unduly large sums, amounting to more than €5m, which Ms Bettencourt paid to his private holding company.
The judge has also been questioning Mr de Maistre about a series of seven clandestine cash transfers made by courier from Ms Bettencourt's secret accounts in Switzerland between 2007 and 2009. The payments, revealed by Swiss officials after Mr Gentil sent an international financial search warrant, include two payments of €400,000 made during the 2007 presidential campaign.
In his official request for Mr de Maistre's arrest, the judge points out that the first of these cash transfers from Switzerland occurred on 5 February 2007 – two days before Mr Bettencourt's financial manager admits that he met Mr Woerth, Mr Sarkozy's campaign treasurer, in a Paris bar.
The judge also points to the coincidence between the date of the second transfer, 26 April 2007, and Mr Banier's diary note in which Ms Bettencourt is reported as referring to Mr Sarkozy's request for more money.