Sarkozy questioned over claims he cheated L'Oreal heiress
Thursday 22 November 2012
The French centre-right yesterday suffered one of the most miserable days in the history of any political movement in the democratic world.
Its former leader, and the former French President, Nicolas Sarkozy was questioned by magistrates for more than 12 hours about the alleged abuse of the mental frailty of France's richest woman to finance his 2007 election campaign.
Late last night Sarkozy was given the status of a "legally assisted witness" in the investigation – making him a possible suspect but one not yet formally accused of a crime.
At the same time, Mr Sarkozy's party – the largest in France – struggled to avoid collapse amid charges of vote-rigging during an election to choose a new leader last weekend.
Following an all-day grilling by three examining magistrates in Bordeaux, Mr Sarkozy was last night declared to be a "temoin assisté" in the alleged "abuse of weakness" of Liliane Bettencourt, the main shareholder of the cosmetics giant L'Oréal. Investigators believe Mr Sarkozy's 2007 presidential campaign received large illegal cash payments from Ms Bettencourt, then 84, when her mental faculties were waning. Mr Sarkozy has denied any wrongdoing.
Finally, late last night, the former President escaped the formal accusation of wrong-doing that had been widely predicted. "Assisted witness" status means that the magistrates believe there is some evidence of his involvement but not enough to justify him being placed under formal investigation. The former President, who retired from politics after he failed to win a second term in May, could be called back for further questioning,
At the heart of the investigation 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 – suggested that at least one of the cash shipments was destined for Mr Sarkozy's campaign treasurer, Eric Woerth.
The chief investigating magistrate, Jean-Michel Gentil, has also found a diary entry made at the time by a playboy photographer, François-Marie-Banier. Mr Banier, who was also formally accused of "abusing" Ms Bettencourt's weakness of mind last year, wrote in the spring of 2007 that Patrice de Maistre, Ms Bettencourt's chief financial adviser, "told me that Sarkozy has asked for money again".
Mr Sarkozy has claimed he did not receive the funds as alleged.
President Sarkozy's diary entries for the time include two visits to Ms Bettencourt's home, although this does not confirm the claims. The investigating magistrate is also examining claims that, once elected, Mr Sarkozy repeatedly intervened to block a legal case brought by Ms Bettencourt's daughter to protect her senile mother from Mr Banier and other alleged financial predators.
In the meantime, efforts are under way to rescue from scission, or complete collapse, Mr Sarkozy's party, the Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP). The former Prime Minister, Alain Juppé, has agreed to mediate between the two candidates in a leadership election which ended in an angrily disputed dead heat on Sunday amid mutual accusations of fraud.
The UMP's secetary-general, Jean-François Copé was declared the winner by 98 out of 170,000 votes on Monday night. It emerged on Wednesday, however, that 1,300 votes from UMP members in French "overseas" departments in the Pacific and Indian Oceans had been omitted from the count. If included, they gave a 26 vote victory to Mr Sarkozy's former prime minister, François Fillon.
- 2 Harry Potter fans can apply to the Hogwarts-inspired College of Wizardry
- 3 Jessica Chambers: 19-year-old woman 'doused with lighter fluid and burned alive' in the US
- 4 Russell Brand calls Nigel Farage 'poundshop Enoch Powell' in BBC Question Time debate
- 5 Orange Wednesdays are no more
Weather bomb in pictures: Storms cuts power for tens of thousands – and snow is on the way
Jessica Chambers: 19-year-old woman 'doused with lighter fluid and burned alive' in the US
Russell Brand calls Nigel Farage 'poundshop Enoch Powell' in BBC Question Time debate
Russell Brand was rendered speechless on Question Time by this man
Fury at Airbus after it hints the super-jumbo may be mothballed
Disgruntled RBS worker writes hilarious open letter to Russell Brand after anti-capitalist publicity stunt leaves him hungry
Nigel Farage defends Kerry Smith 'ch***y' comment: 'If you are going for a Chinese, what do you say you’re going for?'
Nigel Farage's approval rating hits 'record low' as popularity suffers in wake of Ukip sex scandal
Pakistan school attack live: Taliban kill at least 132 children in 'horrifying' massacre
Sony hack: Angelina Jolie branded 'seriously out of her mind' in further embarrassing leaked email saga
Panic Saturday: 13 million Britons spend £1.2bn – while 13 million others across the country live in poverty unable to afford food
£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for a...
£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity to join...
£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We have an excellent role for a...
Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: An IT Support Analyst is required to join the ...