Nicolas Sarkozy's chances of a political comeback
hung in the balance Friday after he was charged with having exploited
an elderly heiress, in a case presided over by a magistrate with a
reputation for taking no prisoners.
The case centres around Liliane Bettencourt, her L'Oreal cosmetics fortune, and money she allegedly contributed to the 58-year-old Sarkozy's 2007 presidential election campaign.
Bettencourt is estimated by Forbes to be worth some 30 billion euros, which makes her the world's richest woman.
Investigating magistrate Jean-Michel Gentil on Thursday charged Sarkozy with exploiting Bettencourt's vulnerability, at a time when, according to medical experts, her mental faculties were already in decline.
Bettencourt was 84 and engaging in eye-popping acts of generosity when around 150,000 euros was allegedly paid over to then interior minister Sarkozy's presidential election campaign.
In December 2007, her daughter filed a complaint against a celebrity photographer and dandy, Francois Marie-Barnier, accusing him of exploiting her mother to secure gifts totalling nearly 1 billion euros.
That case lifted the lid on other comings and goings at the Bettencourt household that year, including by Sarkozy and the treasurer of his presidential campaign, Eric Woerth.
One particular claim had the effect of a political bombshell.
Bettencourt's former accountant told police in 2010 that she was instructed by Bettencourt's wealth manager to withdraw 150,000 euros in cash for Sarkozy's campaign in 2007, a claim the wealth manager and Sarkozy's party denied.
In France, individual campaign contributions are capped at 7,500 euros. But the statute of limitations on illegal campaign financing runs out after three years.
By the time Sarkozy, who was immune from prosecution as president, was voted out of office in 2012, he had become immune to charges of campaign fraud.
But he still faced charges of "exploiting weakness" - a crime that carries up to three years imprisonment and a fine of 375,000 euros.
Sarkozy was said Friday to be floored by the charges.
His successor at the head of the centre-right Union for a Popular Movement, Jean-Francois Cope, said he was in a "state of disbelief."
"It's completely libellous," raged former interior minister Claude Gueant, one of Sarkozy's most loyal former lieutenants. "Who really imagines that Nicolas Sarkozy took advantage of the weakened state of an old lady to get money out of her?"
For former transport minister Thierry Mariani the charges were a "political act".
Several UMP politicians suggested Sarkozy's prosecution was an attempt to divert attention from the week's other scandal - the resignation of budget minister Jerome Cahuzac over allegations of tax fraud.
"I don't believe it's a coincidence," UMP former education minister Laurent Wauquiez told AFP.
The charging of Sarkozy comes as polls show growing nostalgia for his hyperactive leadership style faced with Hollande's more hesitant approach.
A poll by BVA research company earlier this month showed a majority of people believe Sarkozy would have done a better job so far had he been reelected.
Whether he wants his old job back is unclear but in an interview with Valeurs Actuelles news magazine earlier this month Sarkozy hinted he could be tempted.
"Unfortunately, the time will come when the question is no longer: 'Do you want?' but 'Do you have a choice?'," he said, predicting rising social tensions under his successor.
"In that case, indeed, I will be obliged to go for it. Not out of desire. Out of duty."
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