Sarkozy dodges official inquiry in election funding scandal

Thu Nov 22, 2012 5:09pm EST
 

By Claude Canellas

BORDEAUX, France (Reuters) - French former President Nicolas Sarkozy has not been put under formal investigation by magistrates looking into whether he received illegal campaign funds from France's richest woman in 2007, but has instead been designated a witness in the inquiry.

Magistrates questioned Sarkozy for 12 hours as they tried to establish if he had received illegal campaign funding from Liliane Bettencourt, heiress of the L'Oreal cosmetics empire, when he ran for president in 2007.

It was the first time since losing the presidency, and the legal immunity that went with it in May, that Sarkozy had been questioned about the scandal which could poison any future comeback bid, something many conservatives support.

The three investigating magistrates in the southwestern city of Bordeaux could have placed Sarkozy under formal investigation, a step that can, but does not necessarily lead to trial, but instead designated him a witness in the affair.

"At the end of this hearing, Nicolas Sarkozy was notified of his status as witness," said the Bordeaux prosecutor in a brief statement.

Being a so-called "assisted witness" means that unless new evidence is uncovered to place him under formal investigation, Sarkozy will not face trial at the end of the inquiry.

In one strand of a broader inquiry, magistrates are looking at 4 million euros ($5 million) of cash withdrawals from the Swiss bank accounts of Bettencourt.

Sarkozy denies any wrongdoing, but any drawn-out legal investigation could damage his chances of running on the 2017 presidential election, something one recent poll showed 52 percent of his party's supporters want.   Continued...

 
Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy speaks on the phone as he leaves the courthouse in Bordeaux November 22, 2012. Sarkozy and his lawyer Thierry Herzog leave after a day of questioning by magistrates trying to establish whether his 2007 election campaign was illegally financed by the country's richest woman, a judicial source said. The risk for Sarkozy, unseated in May but considered a potential conservative candidate in the 2017 presidential race, is that he ends up plagued by suspicion for months or years, even if his lawyer says there is no case against him. REUTERS/Regis Duvignau REUTERS/Regis Duvignau