As L’Oréal Family Feud Engulfs Sarkozy, an Unlikely Ally Emerges

Georges Kiejman, a former minister of justice, has stood up for France’s ex-president, as he’s been sucked into the family feud over the fortune of L'Oréal heiress Liliane Bettencourt. Christopher Dickey reports.

03.24.13 9:10 PM ET

One can never accuse French politicians of lacking passion. Consider this scene from Thursday night:

The former French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, was in a magistrate’s chambers in Bordeaux and he was just about fed up. Over the last several months he’d been interrogated at length. His offices—and his home with former model Carla Bruni-Sarkozy—had been searched. All this was done on suspicion that he’d somehow cajoled a hapless old woman, who happens to be the richest woman in the world with an estimated fortune of $30 billion, into giving his 2007 presidential campaign money when she didn’t really know what she was doing.

Then, after nine more hours of questioning last Thursday, and confrontations with witnesses who’d allegedly incriminated him, one of the officers of the court leading the investigation took Sarkozy and his attorney aside. He told Sarkozy he was going to be placed under formal investigation, “mise en examen,” which is almost like an indictment in the French system. The charge: “abuse of weakness” in his dealings with the now-90-year-old L’Oréal heiress, Liliane Bettencourt.

With that, a firestorm began on the French political scene that has now raged for days and looks set to continue indefinitely, with charges of intimidation, conspiracy, calumny, suits, and countersuits calling into question the basic impartiality of the French justice system.

But first, there was the showdown between Sarkozy, who is well known for his tough-guy manner, and the magistrate, Jean-Michel Gentil. “This is a great injustice,” said Sarkozy. If you’ve ever seen the ex-president angry, and all of France has from time to time, it’s easy to imagine his set jaw and penetrating gaze. Gentil shot back at him that this was an insulting charge. But Sarkozy gave as good as he got. “No, this is an injustice, and I have the freedom to say and to think what I like,” he responded, according to an account by his lawyer.

“It’s an insult, and now this is over,” said Gentil again. “No it’s not over,” said Sarkozy. Le Monde, citing unnamed sources, quotes Sarkozy saying, “Don’t you worry, this won’t end here.” Le Monde also reports that Gentil felt threatened, given Sarkozy’s reputation for taking political vengeance on his foes, including magistrates. The ex-president’s attorney, Thierry Herzog, says he merely meant he would be using all legal means at his disposal to get the charge dismissed.

By Friday morning, the news had shocked France and the insults began to fly, with one of Sarkozy’s closest aides, Henri Guaino, declaring that justice itself had been “dishonored,” and Judge Gentil’s own lawyer saying he might sue Guaino.

But, wait a minute. Wouldn’t it have been perfectly sensible for Bettencourt to support a candidate who publicly said he wanted to reduce the tax burden on the rich in France, and who, by the way, won the election? Was she as demented as all that? Or at all?

As often happens when scandals erupt and bits of incriminating minutiae leak to the press like chaff out of sieve, core questions in the story have a tendency to get lost in the sordid details. Did Sarkozy visit the Bettencourt house once or twice in February 2007 during his presidential campaign? Did he get an envelope full of money? (There is no charge against him for illicit campaign financing, although there are cases against others who worked with him.) Did Sarkozy wear a turtleneck or did he wear a tie? Can the servants’ testimony be relied on or not? Are there hidden agendas, perhaps by a Socialist President François Hollande or his supporters in the press? (Hollande’s ratings are the lowest this early in his presidency of any French president since 1959. Sarkozy, meanwhile, has been soaring in the polls.) 

Enter a voice of reason—and from a somewhat unexpected quarter: Georges Kiejman is one of the grand old men of the French legal profession. He served as minister of justice under Socialist President François Mitterrand in the early 1990s. As an attorney, he has litigated some of the most high-profile cases in France, and for 18 months represented Bettencourt in her ferocious battle with her daughter, Françoise Meyer, for control of the family fortune.

Kiejman is no partisan of Sarkozy, certainly. He says he never met him when he was president nor since, and that he has always voted socialist. But in a column for Le Figaro and in a phone conversation with Newsweek and The Daily Beast, Kiejman laid out some of the glaring inconsistencies in the case brought by Gentil. “The Bettencourt affair,” he said, “is something you can talk about for three minutes or you can talk about for eight days.”

A combination made of file pictures on March 24, 2013 shows Thierry Herzog (L), lawyer of former French president Nicolas Sarkozy arriving at Paris financial crimes section on October 2, 2012 and French magistrate Jean-Michel Gentil (R), as he arrives at the Bordeaux's courthouse on February 19, 2013. Sarkozy's lawyer Thierry Herzog said his client "considers the treatment inflicted upon him as scandalous" and that they would appeal the "unfair and incoherent" decision by judge Jean-Michel Gentil, who is in charge of the case. Former president Nicolas Sarkozy has been charged with taking financial advantage of France's richest woman as part of a probe into illegal party funding, a move that supporters say is aimed at preventing his political comeback.

Thomas Samson/AFP/Getty

Thierry Herzog (L), lawyer of former French president Nicolas Sarkozy, arriving at Paris financial crimes section on October 2, 2012; French magistrate Jean-Michel Gentil (R), as he arrives at the Bordeaux's courthouse on February 19, 2013.

Kiejman wonders: “Who can believe that the hidden financing of a presidential campaign (which is certainly possible) is done by handing over an envelope to the candidate, between the pear and the cheese, probably with the remark, ‘There you go, my man, that will help you’?”

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The former justice minister contends that there’s no proof, for that matter, that Madame Bettencourt was unfit to make decisions as of 2007. Indeed, he questions whether this woman, with whom he felt he had a very friendly relationship, is mentally weak even today.

To be sure, she had favored some pretty dubious friends and hangers-on over her own family. She gave them very large sums of money, and her daughter contended they’d taken advantage of her. Several other court cases have been brought in that regard, and the whole tangled mess of litigation that has sucked in Sarkozy stems originally from that family feud and the fight to declare her incompetent.

But the case against Sarkozy himself rests on three rather unsteady legs, as Kiejman sees it. First, there was an examination of Madame Bettencourt in 2011, when she was 87, and four years after the events in question. But a report by a distinguished French neurologist in 2008 said there seemed to be no problem with Bettencourt’s short-term or long-term memory. And even though she was recently widowed, she seemed to remain engaged in her various projects.

Kiejman questions whether it makes any sense for Judge Gentil to rely, as well, on the testimony of Bettencourt’s daughter regarding her mother’s mental weakness, given that in late 2010 it was Bettencourt who signed the agreement that gave in to most of her daughter’s demands, turning over vast sums of money. He quotes a letter Bettencourt wrote to him in her own hand in 2011 that appears perfectly lucid, albeit angry and concerned about her daughter’s efforts to have her placed under a guardianship and removed from L’Oréal’s board, which, eventually, is what happened.

As a kicker, Kiejman questions the circumstances in which the accountant and servants who allegedly fingered Sarkozy, one of whom he says was guaranteed €800,000 by the daughter if found out and fired, and another of whom was secretly taping what went on in the house.

Kiejman suggests that from the beginning the press has sympathized with the daughter in this case, and that as Sarkozy was dragged into it, his political enemies saw they might take advantage.

As to Judge Gentil, Kiejman’s remarks are oblique but tough. This decision to open a formal investigation is “a bad blow to justice, and it doesn’t much matter to me if its author wanted or not to join the pantheon of a few judicial officers whose narcissism has made them illustrious.”

The whole affair, he says, “was and should have remained a personal conflict between a mother and a daughter.”