Sarkozy under investigation for 'exploiting frail L'Oreal heiress'
Ex-President 'in state of incomprehension' at court's decision – but he faces up to three years' jail if guilty
PARIS - Nothing illustrates the contrast between the two cultures of Britain and France better than a political scandal. While the British get on their high horses over an MP claiming expenses for a floating duck island, the French do scandal on a scale slightly plus grand.
Witness this week. After the fall from grace of Socialist budget minister, Jerome Cahuzac, and the raid on the Paris flat of Christine Lagarde, head of the IMF, a French court has now launched a "formal investigation" of ex-president, Nicolas Sarkozy, deposed last May by Francois Hollande after a bitter presidential campaign in which much was made of Sarkozy's questionable relations with France's super-rich.
Like the investigation involving Lagarde, Sarkozy's appearance in a Bordeaux court yesterday dates back to the 2007 election campaign.
In what the French press call 'l'affaire Bettencourt', the former president is accused of accepting large sums of money from the then 84-year-old L'Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt at a time when she was succumbing to senile dementia. As well as allegedly abusing her frailty, it is claimed that by accepting the cash – said to be €150,000 - Sarkozy's UMP party breached the rules on individual campaign contributions, which are limited to €4,600.
The story first broke in 2010 when Bettencourt's former accountant, Claire Thibout, revealed to police that she had passed envelopes full of cash to an intermediary, on the understanding it would be given to Sarkozy's campaign treasurer, Eric Woerth, who subsequently resigned his position.
Sarkozy has always denied the allegations, claiming he met Madame Bettencourt only once during the 2007 campaign. The heiress's butler, Pascal Bonnefoy, has a different version of events and so on Thursday Sarkozy was summoned to Bordeaux by investigating magistrate Jean-Michel Gentil for a face-to-face encounter with Bonnefoy.
Following the meeting, it was announced that "for taking advantage of a vulnerable person during 2007 to the detriment of Liliane Bettencourt" the ex-president had been placed under formal investigation.
"Under formal investigation" means that there is evidence to suggest to the magistrate that laws have been broken but further investigation is required before charges can be formally laid against the accused, or the case thrown out.
According to Jean-François Copé, Sarkozy's successor as leader of the UMP party, the former president is "in a state of incomprehension" at the magistrate's decision, while Sarkozy's lawyer denounced his treatment as "scandalous" and promised his client would file an appeal against the "incoherent and unfair decision".
Broadcaster France24 says that Sarkozy lost his immunity from prosecution the day he left office and therefore "faces up to three years in prison, a fine of E375,000 and a five-year exclusion from politics if he is found guilty".
It's not great timing if the recent rumours are true that Sarkozy hopes to return to the Elysee Palace and save the nation from destitution once the Socialist Francois Hollande has had his one term as president. Even if he is never charged, he faces months of scrutiny of his affairs
It's not the first time in recent years that a former French president has had his collar felt after leaving office. In December 2011 Jacques Chirac received a two-year suspended prison sentence for diverting public funds and violating public trust during his time as mayor of Paris from 1977 to 1995. The verdict was described by one of Chirac's political enemies, former National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, as "a ray of sunshine in the black sky of scandals".
So much for our British politicians and their floating duck islands. ·