Bordeaux (France): Former President Nicolas Sarkozy has been charged with taking financial advantage of France's richest woman, as part of a probe into illegal party funding that could shatter his hopes of a political comeback.
His lawyers said they would appeal against the decision to formally investigate Sarkozy over allegations he took advantage of elderly L'Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt when she was weakened by poor health.
He was unexpectedly summoned on Thursday to the Bordeaux offices of Jean-Michel Gentil, the judge in charge of the case, for face-to-face encounters with at least four former members of Bettencourt's staff. The surprise confrontation came over claims he had accepted envelopes stuffed with cash from the world's richest woman to fund his 2007 election campaign.
Gentil was seeking to establish how many times Sarkozy had visited Bettencourt during his successful campaign. Sarkozy, 58, has always maintained that he visited Bettencourt's residence only once during the campaign, to meet her late husband. Members of the multi-billionaire's staff have, however, contradicted his version of events.
Sarkozy's lawyer Thierry Herzog lambasted the decision to pursue his client as "legally incoherent and unfair". He said he would immediately initiate proceedings to have the charges dropped. Bettencourt is now 90. Medical experts say her mental capacity began to deteriorate from the autumn of 2006.
The allegation is that Sarkozy obtained significant amounts of money from her, breaching electoral spending limits and taking advantage of a person weakened by ill health. Bettencourt's former accountant, Claire Thibout, told police in 2010 she had handed envelopes filled with cash to Bettencourt's right-hand man, Patrice de Maistre, on the understanding it was to be passed on to Sarkozy's campaign treasurer, Eric Woerth. Woerth has already been charged in the affair.
Investigators suspect up to USD 5.2 million of Bettencourt's cash subsequently made its way into the coffers of Sarkozy's UMP party. Sarkozy's troubles come just two days after France's budget minister Jerome Cahuzac resigned on Tuesday, as prosecutors announced a full criminal inquiry into allegations that he had an undeclared bank account in Switzerland.

Edwy Plenel, co-founder of the Mediapart news website, which first ran the allegations against Cahuzac, said, "This week shows the usefulness of independent journalism, which is very much in the public interest." Mediapart has also taken a leading role covering the Bettencourt affair.


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