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The greatest hurdle to Nicolas Sarkozy’s political comeback has been removed, after judges dropped charges against him for illegally soliciting campaign funds from France’s richest woman, Liliane Bettencourt.
A French court has dropped charges that alleged Nicolas Sarkozy took advantage of the mental fragility of France’s richest woman to obtain illegal funding for his 2007 election campaign, potentially paving the way for a political return.
Sarkozy, who was under investigation for allegedly accepting cash from the L’Oréal heiress Liliane Bettencourt, 90, was told there was no case to answer and he would not be sent for trial. However, all charges are diverted against Eric Woerth, Sarkozy’s campaign treasurer.
The unexpected decision removed a major obstacle for the rightwing politician – who was defeated after one term in office by Socialist François Hollande in May 2012 – to stand again for president in 2017.
Judges had been conducting a criminal investigation into Sarkozy’s links with Bettencourt and whether he abused her weakness by asking for and accepting money for his successful 2007 election campaign, when she was allegedly too frail to know what she was doing.
Sarkozy, who was “mis en examen”, the French equivalent of being charged, in March this year, maintained the accusations were unfounded, while supporters said the allegations were unfair and politically motivated. At the time, the president’s wife, former supermodel Carla Bruni, added: “It’s unimaginable that [Sarkozy] could abuse the weakness of a lady who is the age of his mother.”
The decision to drop the charges came only two weeks after a court ruled that an investigation could proceed. However, the public prosecutor in Bordeaux, where the inquiry was being held, said the case against Sarkozy stood no chance of success and had threatened to appeal against any decision to send the former president to trial, raising further delays to the investigation against other accused.
Charges were maintained against former minister Eric Woerth, who was Sarkozy’s treasurer in the 2007 campaign; Bettencourt’s former companion, the society photographer François-Marie Banier; her lawyer Pascal Wilhelm; her financial advisor Patrice de Maistre, and six others. Their case is expected to go to court next year.
In a separate case, Bettencourt’s former butler and five journalists are to face trial for breaching French privacy laws for making and publishing extracts of conversations secretly recorded at her luxury home. The tapes played a central role in the longrunning dispute between the matriarch and her only child, Françoise Meyers-Bettencourt, who accused members of her mother’s entourage and staff of taking advantage of her weakening mental state.
Sarkozy remains dogged by several other legal cases, including a scandal over millions of public funds money paid in compensation to his friend Bernard Tapie, a controversial businessman; and the so-called Karachi affair, a convoluted corruption case linked to arms sales and a bombing in Pakistan in 2002 that killed 11 French nationals.
In the runup to the May 2012 election campaign, Sarkozy said if he lost, France would “never hear of me again”. He has remained mostly out of sight since his defeat, but recently, while stopping short of any explicit pledge of a comeback, he and his entourage have dropped heavy hints that he may return to the frontline of French politics to “save” the country.
Sarkozy remains the mainstream right’s most popular candidate to challenge Hollande in 2017. Neither his former prime minister François Fillon nor Jean-François Copé, president of his UMP (Union pour un Mouvement Populaire) party, have succeeded in rallying support.
An opinion poll by Ifop in September found 62% of rightwing voters wanted him to stand in 2017 – well ahead of any rivals in the party. A national drive among UMP supporters to avert a financial crisis and repay the €11m (£9.3m) overspend on Sarkozy’s unsuccessful 2012 campaign raised the money in just two months.
“I want each of you to know how grateful I am for this mobilisation, which surprised me as much as it moved me … Thank you all,” Sarkozy wrote on his Twitter account.
During a recent visit to the Haute-Savoie region, Sarkozy dined with UMP supporters, and seemed unconcerned with wrangling within the UMP party. “I can’t be bothered with small political news,” he told them. “But France, that’s something else.”
Paris – correspondence from Renaud de Castel-Brizach