Sarkozy questioned in fundraising probe

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Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy was questioned yesterday by magistrates trying to establish whether he received illegal campaign funds from France’s richest woman when he ran for president in 2007.

Hundreds of police officers stood guard as Sarkozy arrived to face investigators for closed-door questioning at the Palais de Justice in the city of Bordeaux, southwest France. It was the first time since losing the presidency, and the legal immunity that went with it, in May that he has been questioned about the scandal which could poison any future comeback bid.

In one strand of a broader inquiry, magistrates are looking at 4 million euros of cash withdrawals from the Swiss bank accounts of Liliane Bettencourt, heiress of the L’Oreal cosmetics empire.

2017 nomination in danger

Sarkozy denies any wrongdoing but any drawn-out legal probe may taint him with suspicion that could damage his chances of running at the 2017 presidential election, which one recent poll showed 52 percent of his party’s supporters want to see. Investigating magistrate Jean-Michel Gentil could decide, following his first question session, whether to put Sarkozy under full-blown judicial investigation.

Initial suspicions were fuelled three years ago when a woman who worked as an accountant for the mentally frail Bettencourt, now aged 90, alleged that a large cash withdrawal was earmarked for Sarkozy’s campaign.

Accountant told police that she handed over 150,000 euros in cash she was told would be passed on to Sarkozy’s campaign treasurer. The sum shocked many French citizens because spending on political campaigns is tightly limited here. As part of the inquiry into financial relations with Bettencourt, police raided Sarkozy’s Paris residence and offices in July.

The Bettencourt affair is not the only cloud on the horizon. Lawyers are also demanding that Sarkozy explain himself in two other cases, one concerning the terms of a submarine sale to Pakistan and another concerning lavish spending on opinion polls by his office when he was president.

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