Nicolas Sarkozy: The L'Oreal files

Did France's notorious cosmetics heiress illegally bankroll a presidential campaign? One judge is determined to find out

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The Independent Online

You do not play hardball with “judge nice”.

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 in holiday in Canada when Judge Jean-Michel Gentil (which means “nice” in French) came calling at dawn yesterday with two other judges and ten police officers. Judge Gentil made sure, however, 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 previously 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 had annoyed Judge Gentil last month by orchestrating press coverage suggesting that he was “in the clear” in the sprawling “Bettencourt affair”. The raids were the notoriously tough judge’s way of telling Mr Sarkozy that, “au contraire”, he remained at the centre of his investigations.

In the next couple of weeks, 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 even from 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 found guilty, Mr Sarkozy could be jailed. He would be more likely to be given a suspended sentence, like his former mentor Mr Chirac.

Accounts differed yesterday of what Judge Gentil discovered during his three raids on Tuesday. 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 copy of Mr Sarkozy’s 2007 appointments’ diary. The former president let it be known two weeks ago that he had “pre-empted” any possible investigation by the judge by sending him a copy of this diary. By seizing the original, judge Gentil was, in effect, saying that he did not necessarily accept that the copy was genuine and unaltered.

The investigation is one of an extraordinary cat’s cradle of separate criminal inquiries which flow from a four years’ old feud within one of Europe’s richest families. In December 2008, Liliane Bettencourt, 89, daughter of the founder of the cosmetics giant L’Oreal (acute on e), was accused by her own daughter of falling under the malign and grasping 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 which 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 advisors.

Others formally accused on 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 large cash sums – over the €4,600 permitted limit – to Mr Sarkozy’s presidential campaign.

The then president dismissed the allegations as a “stinking ball” and a “calumny” intended to “smear” him. 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 independent 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 Ms Bettencourt’s 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 does not show up in the copy of his appointments diary sent to Judge Gentil.

The former President faces several other possible investigations, including media allegations that he accepted campaign funds from the late Libyan dictator, Muammar Gaddafi. Little or no proof exists in this case.

His name has also emerged as part of a judicial investigation into alleged payments of kick-backs on arms sales to the 1995 presidential campaign of his former mentor, Edouard Balladur. Once again, there is said to be little firm evidence against Mr Sarkozy.

The Bettencourt affair may be different. Judge “nice” appears to believe Mr Sarkozy – the man who made his reputation by being tough on crime – may have something to hide.

6 July 2010 Claire Thibout, Bettencourt's former bookkeeper, says in an interview she was asked to withdraw €150,000 to be given to Sarkozy.

December 2007 The daughter of L'Oreal billionaire Liliane Bettencourt, Francoise Bettencourt-Meyers, complains to police that photographer Francois-Marie Banier has wrangled €1bn from her ailing mother.

16 June 2010 Secretly recorded tapes of Liliane Bettencourt's conversations are passed to the police by her daughter with reports that they also mention illegal cash donations given to President Nicolas Sarkozy's 2007 election campaign.

16 June 2012 After losing the French presidential election in May, Sarkozy also loses his immunity from police questioning and criminal prosecution.

3 July 2012 Sarkozy's house and office are raided by police and a prosecutor as he is drawn ever more personally into the affair.

9 Feb 2012 Woerth is placed under criminal investigation over suspicions he ensured the Legion of Honour was given to Mrs Bettencourt's finance manager, Patrice de Maistre, who had given his wife a job.

13 July 2010 Labour minister Eric Woerth steps down as treasurer of Sarkozy's UMP party, amid stories that he ignored alleged tax evasion by Bettencourt.

31 August 2011 Claims that a nurse saw Sarkozy given money by Bettencourt, which the President denies, are published in an investigative book titled Sarkozy Killed Me.