FORMER French president Nicolas Sarkozy is facing trial over claims he accepted cash-filled envelopes from France’s richest woman to illegally fund his 2007 election campaign.
A formal investigation into accusations Mr Sarkozy duped L’Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt into donating campaign funds should proceed, an appeals court has ruled.
Under French law, this means there is “serious or consistent evidence” against a suspect and that the matter can be taken to trial when prosecutors are ready.
Mr Sarkozy was first quizzed by a judge in Bordeaux last year over the highly damaging election fraud allegations which tainted the last months of his term in office.
He faces charges that 90-year-old Mrs Bettencourt handed him illegal “bungs” totalling £200,000 to help him get elected in 2007. He also faces a charge of “abusing the vulnerability” of the woman dubbed “France’s biggest taxpayer”.
Two of the contributions allegedly received by Mr Sarkozy were traced to Swiss bank accounts – and several were said to have been handed to him personally in cash in a brown envelope at her home in Paris.
In return, Mr Sarkozy is said to have offered Mrs Bettencourt tax breaks once he came to power.Police raided Mr Sarkozy and supermodel wife Carla Bruni’s Paris mansion in Paris in July last year over the claims.
Fraud squad officers also searched Mr Sarkozy’s office at a Paris law firm and his grace-and-favour office granted to former heads of state.
Under France’s electoral code, individual election campaign donations may not exceed e4,600 (£3,800) per person during political campaigns – and only e150 may be given in cash.
Mr Sarkozy’s lawyer Thierry Herzog has dismissed all the charges as a “misunderstanding”. He has claimed that Mr Sarkozy’s diary entry for a “Bettencourt” on 5 June 2007 was actually for a meeting with former hostage Ingrid Betancourt after she was released by Columbia’s FARC rebels.
He said: “There were no secret meetings with Liliane Bettencourt. The case against him does not exist.”
Mr Sarkozy has been at the centre of a slew of corruption claims since being defeated by new president Francois Hollande in May 2012. One investigation centred on his party receiving £45 million from ousted Libyan tyrant Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi in illegal campaign donations six years ago.
Mr Sarkozy has hinted several times that he may seek re-election as president in four years’ time, but a corruption trial would complicate any political comeback.
Political analyst Philippe Braud said: “Any criminal conviction would make that extremely difficult.
“If you love politics like Sarkozy does, then it is such an addiction he is sure to be thinking of coming back to it.
“But if he is prosecuted and convicted that would practically eliminate any chance of him returning to political life.”