July 04, 2012
Nicolas Sarkozy is defending claims he accepted illegal donations to finance his 2007 presidential campaign. Photo: AP
Nicolas Sarkozy and Carla Bruni-Sarkozy's home and offices were raided by police yesterday in a dramatic development in a political funding scandal.
Magistrates are investigating claims that house staff of Liliane Bettencourt, heiress to the L'Oreal cosmetics empire and France's richest woman, handed over brown envelopes stuffed with cash to Mr Sarkozy and his aides to finance his successful 2007 presidential campaign.
Officers from Paris's financial brigade raided a town mansion belonging to Mrs Bruni-Sarkozy where the former first couple live, as well as the law firm where Mr Sarkozy used to be an associate, and the offices he is entitled to as former head of state.
Mr Sarkozy lost his presidential immunity on June 16, a month after leaving office, and there had been speculation that Jean-Michel Gentil, a Bordeaux judge, would approach him as part of the illegal cash donation inquiry.
The judge is also investigating whether Mrs Bettencourt's entourage is guilty of "abuse of weakness" - taking advantage of her waning mental capacities for financial gain. Eleven people have already been charged in the case.
Mr Sarkozy and his wife were on holiday in Canada when Mr Gentil and a dozen fraud squad officers burst into their home on the 16th arrondissement, before moving on to the Arnaud, Claude and associates law firm which Mr Sarkozy part owns, and his offices in rue de Miromesnil near the Champs-Elysees.
Several former employees of Mrs Bettencourt and her late husband, Andre, have told the judge that Mr Sarkozy discreetly turned up to their mansion in Neuilly at least twice before his election in February and April 2007.
Days after losing his presidential immunity, Mr Sarkozy's lawyer, Thierry Herzog, sent the judge his diary relating to the weeks before his 2007 election, saying it proved that no "supposedly secret rendezvous" to receive illicit funding could have taken place.
There is only one official mention of a meeting between Mr Sarkozy and the Bettencourts in the diary, which shows he paid a brief visit on February 24, 2007, two months before the first round of elections. Mr Herzog claimed this was a "courtesy call" that lasted 20 to 25 minutes, that any other meetings would have been mentioned, and that his diary showed it was "materially impossible" for Mr Sarkozy to have been present in other dates mentioned by staff.
Yesterday, Mr Herzog confirmed that the former president, who lost his re-election battle to Francois Hollande last month, was in Canada. "These raids ... will prove to be, as expected, futile," he said.
Mrs Bettencourt was placed under legal guardianship in October after a legal battle over her 16 billion euro ($19.6 billion) fortune. It began when her estranged daughter, Francoise Bettencourt-Meyers, accused a society photographer and other advisers of taking advantage of the 89-year-old heiress, who has dementia.
Mr Gentil has cited two suspect withdrawals of 400,000 euros each from Swiss bank accounts on behalf of Mrs Bettencourt's former wealth manager, Patrice de Maistre, who is also under investigation. He spent almost three months in prison while the judge repeatedly questioned him on where the money went.
The first withdrawal was made on February 5, 2007, two days before a meeting between Mr de Maistre and Eric Woerth, Mr Sarkozy's then-campaign treasurer.
Mr Woerth later became labour minister but resigned in 2010 over the funding scandal and in 2011 police carried out searches of his home and offices of Mr Sarkozy's UMP party.
Mrs Bettencourt's accountant, Claire Thibout, has testified to having been asked in 2007 to provide 150,000 euros to Mr Woerth. He faces charges of receiving cash payments and a conflict of interest. He denies any wrongdoing.
The second questionable withdrawal was made on April 26, 2007. The judge is also intrigued by a diary entry by Mrs Bettencourt's photographer friend Francois-Marie Banier, who wrote on April 26, 2007, that the heiress mentioned a "request for money" from Mr Sarkozy to which she "said yes".
French law limits individual donations to political parties to 7500 euros per person per year and 4600 euros during political campaigns. Only 150 euros may be given in cash.
The Telegraph, London