Sacrebleu

07.03.12

Police Search Sarkozy's Home For Evidence of Illegal Campaign Financing

He was immune from prosecution as long as he was in power, but now that he's lost the election, the former French president faces a major police investigation. Tracy McNicoll reports.

Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy's home and offices have been searched by police in Paris. The searches stem from an investigation into illegal campaign financing allegations, part of the tentacular so-called Bettencourt Affair that weighed down Sarkozy's presidency for years. The former leader was immune from prosecution as long as he occupied the Elysée Palace. But, defeated in his bid for a second term in office on May 6th by new Socialist President François Hollande, Sarkozy's immunity lapsed on June 15th.

In quick succession Tuesday morning, the case's Bordeaux-based investigating magistrate and a reported ten police officers from Paris' financial brigade visited the 16th arrondissement home Sarkozy shares with his wife Carla Bruni-Sarkozy and the brand new offices the state provides to a former president. Another report claimed the law firm in which Sarkozy owns a share also had its offices searched on Tuesday. Sarkozy left France on Monday with his family for a holiday in Canada.

Judge Jean-Michel Gentil is investigating allegations of illegal financing of Sarkozy's successful 2007 presidential campaign. Sarkozy's campaign is suspected of having accepted large sums of cash vastly exceeding French campaign financing rules from the billionaire Bettencourt family, heirs to the L'Oréal cosmetics fortune. A Bettencourt accountant has testified that she believed 150,000 euros were given to Eric Woerth, the Sarkozy campaign's treasurer and later a Sarkozy cabinet minister. At least one other witness has alleged that Sarkozy took cash himself in one or more visits during the 2007 campaign to the Bettencourts home in Neuilly-sur-Seine, the posh suburb of Paris where Sarkozy had been mayor for 19 years until 2002. André Bettencourt died in 2007, while Liliane Bettencourt, 89, suffering from Alzheimer's disease, has been placed under the guardianship of her family.

Sarkozy has denied the allegations. He claims to have made only one visit to the Bettencourt residence during the period in question, on 24 February 2007. Sarkozy's lawyer Thierry Herzog reiterated on Tuesday that he sent Sarkozy's entire 2007 agenda to the investigating judge on the day Sarkozy's immunity lapsed, June 15th, with a reminder that Sarkozy was during that time in the constant company of the police officers charged with his security. Herzog says he has also provided the names of all of those police officers "so that they may certify that there was only one meeting on 24 February 2007, at his home, with Mr. André Bettencourt."

"These searches, when all the necessary elements had been sent to this judge 15 days ago, will turn out, as we can expect, to be useless acts," Sarkozy's lawyer Thierry Herzog said in a statement to Agence France Presse on Tuesday. One French press report suggests that no documents were seized in Tuesday's searches.