The former French President Nicolas Sarkozy was formally accused last night of abusing the mental weakness of France's wealthiest woman to help to finance his 2007 election campaign.
The political and judicial bombshell followed hours of questioning of the former head of state by an investigating magistrate in Bordeaux.
Mr Sarkozy was "placed under formal investigation" – one step short of a charge – for the alleged abuse of the weakness of Liliane Bettencourt, the 90-year-old chief shareholder of the cosmetics giant, L'Oréal.
After confronting Mr Sarkozy one-by-one with several former members of Ms Bettencourt's staff, Judge Jean-Michel Gentil decided that there was reason to believe that the former President lied during a similar 12-hour grilling in November last year. On that occasion, Mr Sarkozy said that he had visited Ms Bettencourt, then 84, on just one occasion during the 2007 presidential campaign and had never asked her for a "penny".
The judge accepted his word at the time and made him an "assisted witness" in the case, rather than an outright suspect. This decision has now been reversed.
Four members of her staff, including her former butler, Pascal Bonnefoy, have told the judge that they saw Mr Sarkozy enter Ms Bettencourt's mansion in Neuilly, just west of Paris, on several occasions in early 2007. Their evidence was repeated in the presence of the former President yesterday.
Mr Sarkozy's lawyer, Thierry Herzog, said last night that he would appeal against the judge's "incoherent and unjust" decision.
The case against Mr Sarkozy is far from watertight and he could still be cleared without going to trial. For the time being, however, his chances of resuming a political career, abandoned after he failed to win a second term last May, appear to be mortally damaged.
Mr Sarkozy would be the second successive French president, after Jacques Chirac, to face criminal charges for, in effect, illegally funding his career. But Nicolas Sarkozy is being accused of something far more serious – defrauding an elderly woman whose mental faculties were impaired.
Judge Gentil opted for the grave accusation of "abuse of weakness" because the time limit had passed for an investigation into illegal campaign financing. If ultimately charged and found guilty, Mr Sarkozy would face a prison sentence
At the heart of the accusation are two clandestine shipments of cash – amounting to €400,000 each – brought into France from Switzerland by Ms Bettencourt's financial advisers in February and April 2007. A statement to police by Ms Bettencourt's former accountant, Claire Thibout – later partly retracted – suggests that part of the cash was destined for Mr Sarkozy's campaign.