French investigators have abandoned a corruption inquiry against former president Nicolas Sarkozy which could have seen him jailed for three years, increasing the chance he will make a new presidential bid in 2017.
Mr Sarkozy, who many conservatives want to see lead the centre-right in the 2017 presidential race, was being pursued with others in an investigation into his UMP party’s ties with France’s richest woman, L’Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt.
At issue were allegations that Mr Sarkozy, 58, took advantage of the mental frailty of the billionaire to obtain money for his 2007 presidential campaign. He has denied wrongdoing.
Mrs Bettencourt’s accountant, Claire Thibout, has said she withdrew €150,000 (£126,000) in cash that was to be passed to Mr Sarkozy’s conservative UMP party in the run-up to his presidential election victory in 2007.
Individual campaign contributions in France are limited to €4,600 annually.
Mrs Bettencourt’s butler testified that Mr Sarkozy was a regular visitor to her home during his 2007 campaign. But Mr Sarkozy insisted he only saw Mrs Bettencourt once in that year.
The 90-year-old has suffered from dementia since 2006.
On a visit to the Grand Mosque in Paris yesterday, Mr Sarkozy declined to comment on the trial threat being lifted, but his allies were keen to play up the significance of yesterday’s unexpected twist in the legal saga.
“It means his political calendar is no longer a hostage to the judicial calendar,” said Rachida Dati, the former justice minister.
The two magistrates in charge of the investigation decided to pursue their case against former French budget minister Eric Woerth and nine others in the case, a judicial source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said yesterday.
Mr Sarkozy has largely stayed out of the limelight since his defeat to François Hollande, but since the start of the year has fanned speculation that he is considering a re-election bid.
Some 62 per cent of conservative UMP voters want to see Mr Sarkozy run for the presidency in 2017, according to an Ifop poll published in September.
But while the ruling grants Mr Sarkozy more freedom to intervene in public life, he faces further questioning in the so-called “Karachi Affair”, a drawn-out corruption case linked to arms sales and a deadly bombing in Pakistan in 2002.
A Paris appeals court last week authorised magistrates to investigate whether Mr Sarkozy, then president, violated judicial secrecy in 2011 by publishing a statement which referred to case records that were meant to be kept secret.
Legal troubles aside, Mr Sarkozy will struggle despite his popularity with right-wing voters to impose himself as natural leader of his centre-right UMP party, which has barely recovered from a leadership struggle between two former allies.
Former prime minister François Fillon, once a stalwart supporter of Mr Sarkozy and now a likely electoral rival for 2017, said this week he had no choice but to be “in conflict” with the former president.
“I cannot take on all the consequences of a presidential candidacy and not be in conflict with Nicolas Sarkozy, given his state of mind,” Mr Fillon told the JDD weekly paper.
“De facto, we are in competition.”
Indeed, the UMP that Mr Sarkozy once ran as a disciplined group has splintered into factions loyal to Mr Fillon and rival party chief Jean-François Cope, with some former supporters saying that Mr Sarkozy should bow out of politics.