Last updated: November 22, 2012 5:22 pm

Sarkozy in court amid UMP troubles

Nicolas Sarkozy, the former French president, was questioned on Thursday by judges probing allegations that he took illicit campaign funds from France’s richest woman, as warnings mounted that a civil war raging over his succession could shatter his UMP party.

Mr Sarkozy appeared behind closed doors in a Bordeaux court conducting an inquiry into whether he took large cash donations for his successful 2007 presidential campaign from Liliane Bettencourt, the 90-year-old heiress to the L’Oréal cosmetics empire. He strongly denies the accusation.

After 12 hours of questioning, Mr Sarkozy left the court having been placed under the status of assisting witness in the case. To the relief of his supporters, the judges apparently did not believe there was sufficient evidence to place him under formal investigation, which would have signalled he was likely to face charges.

The questioning took place as confusion deepened over whether Jean-François Copé, a former budget minister, or the former prime minister François Fillon had won last weekend’s furiously contested election for the centre-right UMP’s leadership.

Amid renewed allegations on both sides of fraud and ballot-stuffing, the party’s electoral commission admitted that votes from three overseas territories it had failed to count would have delivered – by a razor-thin margin – victory to Mr Fillon, not Mr Copé, who was officially declared the winner on Monday evening.

Calling the dispute “disastrous, ridiculous and dangerous”, Alain Juppé, a former premier and a party co-founder, agreed to set up a special commission to
settle the issue within a fortnight after the Fillon and Copé camps apparently accepted his mediation.

“We are heading for the explosion of the UMP if we don’t stop this masquerade,” said Mr Juppé.

Mr Sarkozy’s court appearance followed an investigators’ raid in July of his Paris office and the home he shares with his wife, Carla Bruni, the former supermodel, that in turn followed the lifting of his presidential immunity.

The judges are examining allegations that €150,000 was passed in early 2007 in cash to Mr Sarkozy’s campaign treasurer by Ms Bettencourt’s then wealth manager, in contravention of France’s election rules.

The latter two, who deny the charges, are both under formal investigation as part of a wider inquiry into allegations that Ms Bettencourt was taken advantage of by her associates before a court placed her financial affairs under the guardianship of her grandson.

Mr Sarkozy, who also denies suggestions he had secret meetings with Ms Bettencourt, has described the allegations implicating him as a “stink bomb” got up by his political rivals. He insists the official election accounts commission had certified his campaign finances, saying “not one centime” was disputed.

The “Bettencourt affair”, coupled with other legal cases to which Mr Sarkozy has been linked, could cloud plans he may have to make a political comeback in time to challenge President François Hollande in the next election in 2017.

His prospects have been enhanced by the UMP’s leadership debacle. An opinion poll on Thursday put him far ahead of both Mr Fillon and Mr Copé in popularity among UMP voters.

Mr Sarkozy is the second former French president to face judicial proceedings. Last year, Jacques Chirac was handed a suspended two-year prison term in a case in which he was accused of creating phantom jobs for friends and allies when he was mayor of Paris.

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