Sarkozy judge mistook hostage for billionaire: lawyer

Fri Nov 23, 2012 2:50pm EST
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By Brian Love

PARIS (Reuters) - A judge investigating Nicolas Sarkozy's campaign funding mistook a Colombian hostage for a billionaire backer of France's right-wing party when he queried a meeting in the ex-president's diary, a lawyer for Sarkozy said.

Sarkozy, who lost power in May, was questioned for 12 hours on Thursday by a judge who is trying to establish whether his election win in 2007 was aided by illegal funding from France's richest woman, 90-year-old Liliane Bettencourt.

Rather than Bettencourt, daughter of the founder of the L'Oreal cosmetics empire, the diary entry referred to the Franco-Colombian Ingrid Betancourt, who was held hostage in Colombia for six years and freed in 2007, lawyer Thierry Herzog told French radio.

Herzog said judge Jean-Michel Gentil had made a note reading "name spelt wrongly" next to the name "Betancourt" on a list of Sarkozy's appointments, implying that he had believed the meeting was with the L'Oreal heiress, but eventually acknowledged his mistake.

In a statement on behalf of the judge, Bordeaux prosecutor Claude Laplaud did not deny Herzog's account, but said Sarkozy had not been summoned specifically to discuss the meeting with Ingrid Betancourt, and had not been questioned about it.

Gentil decided after the questioning not to open a full-blown inquiry into Sarkozy, who has bowed out of politics but remains a possible candidate for the conservative camp in the next presidential contest in 2017.

Sarkozy's departure has sparked a feud within his UMP party, where two men who faced off in an internal leadership election are exchanging accusations of fraud.

A BVA poll released on Friday indicated that 73 percent of conservative voters want Sarkozy back in politics.   Continued...

Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy jogs in Paris, November 23, 2012. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier