Sarkozy’s Old Lady Troubles

Tracy McNicoll on the investigation into whether the former French president took financial advantage of a billionaire cosmetic heiress.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP, Jacques Brinon/AP

Could being accused of filching a fragile old lady out of her pennies spell the end for Nicolas Sarkozy? In a shock move late Thursday night in Bordeaux, the former French president was placed under formal investigation for "abuse of weakness" in the so-called Bettencourt Affair, a sinuous scandal that wreaked havoc for Sarkozy during his presidency and now threatens to quash his comeback. An abuse of weakness conviction can entail up to three years in prison and a 375,000-euro fine, although actual jail time in Sarkozy's case is seen as unlikely.

Local media is awash with dramatic superlatives for France’s latest legal thriller—“thunderbolt,” “quake,” “tsunami,” “shockwave”—many evoking natural disaster. And indeed, only 48 hours after a Socialist cabinet minister resigned in scandal and a day after International Monetary Fund chief Christine Lagarde’s Paris flat was searched in a separate investigation, the phenomenon might well seem a little too natural for comfort in France.

The Bettencourt case is so named after the fragile old lady in question, Liliane Bettencourt, 90, who happens to be the world's richest woman, according to Forbes. The L'Oréal cosmetics heiress' $30-billion fortune ranks ninth on Forbes' global rich list. Suffering from dementia and Alzheimer's since 2006, Bettencourt was placed under guardianship in 2011, four years after her estranged daughter first went to police accusing a charismatic photographer of seeking to profit from her mother's frailty. That initial investigation quickly metastasized into a complex multilayered scandal that has seen 17 people placed under formal investigation on a range of allegations, including Eric Woerth, Sarkozy's 2007 campaign treasurer and later cabinet minister, for "passive influence peddling."

The ongoing revelations—many sourced to people who worked for Bettencourt —were catnip to the media during Sarkozy's presidency, a single term that concluded last May when Socialist François Hollande foiled his reelection bid. A butler secretly taped mansion conversations, a personal accountant flagged unusual withdrawals allegedly for Sarkozy's 2007 campaign, a chauffeur passed along a deceased housekeeper's suspicions that Sarkozy himself came trolling for cash. It was Downton Abbey meets Law & Order.

On Thursday, under the watchful eye of the case's lead investigating judge in Bordeaux, Sarkozy was formally confronted with four Bettencourt staffers, who reportedly contradicted Sarkozy's longtime claim that he visited the Bettencourt home only once in 2007 to meet with the late André Bettencourt, not his wife, Liliane.

Sarkozy’s lawyer is contemplating an appeal of Thursday's decision. But if that proves unsuccessful, the former French president could be in for a long battle. Any trial is not expected until late 2014 and the usual rounds of appeal mean a final verdict could take years, even if Sarkozy is eventually cleared.

As it happens, Sarkozy's legal misfortune will take some of the immediate heat off the embattled Socialist president, only days after his budget minister Jérôme Cahuzac, targeted by a tax-fraud inquiry, was embarrassingly constrained to step down. Hollande's approval rating has languished in the 30s, and 80 percent believe his policies are inefficient just as unemployment has climbed to a 13-year high.

The development comes on the heels of the pugnacious ex-president's clearest hint yet of his intention to try to win back the Elysée Palace in 2017. Earlier this month, the conservative weekly Valeurs Actuelles quoted Sarkozy saying he might just have to return to the political stage, if only out of obligation. "Sadly, there will be a moment where the question will no longer be 'do you want to' but 'will you have a choice?'" he reportedly mused. "In that case, I will not be able to continue telling myself, 'I'm happy, I take my daughter to school, I do conferences all over the world.' In that case, indeed, I will have to go for it. Not by desire. By duty. Purely because it is about France."

At only 58, the energetic former leader's future looked hopeful, just 10 months after his lost bid for a second term. For the first time since November 2011, a poll last week by the IFOP firm for Paris Match deemed Sarkozy more popular than Hollande, and the search for a charismatic conservative successor to Sarkozy has been a shambles. Two heavyweights, former prime minister François Fillon and Union for a Popular Movement chief Jean-François Copé, virtually canceled one another out during a long, ugly leadership race through the winter, both plummeting in public opinion.

Conservatives polled just this month on their pick for a 2017 presidential candidate chose Sarkozy with huge margins over his two rivals. Sarkozy's wife Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, a former supermodel and pop star promoting her forthcoming album, has seemed keen to promote her husband, too, dedicating the song "Mon Raymond" to the president she married in 2008, adoringly likening him to dynamite, the atom bomb, and even a pirate.

In a separate scandal, Christine Lagarde, the managing director of the International Monetary Fund and a former French finance minister under Sarkozy, saw her Paris flat searched on Wednesday by investigators in a long-running inquiry into alleged abuse of public funds.

Lagarde has denied wrongdoing in the so-called Tapie Affair, spurred when she ignored advice in 2008 not to opt for arbitration in a long-standing dispute with the French billionaire businessman Bernard Tapie. As a result, Tapie, a well-known Sarkozy supporter, was awarded 400-million euros. (Lagarde succeeded embattled compatriot Dominique Strauss-Kahn for the IMF job in 2011.)

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And so the parade of scandal continues, an astoundingly common drumbeat in France, arguably to the benefit of throw-the-bums-out rhetoric from populist spitfire, Marine Le Pen. The far-right National Front leader was recently named France's second favorite woman politician (after Lagarde) and saw her approval rating beat Hollande's this week.

Carla’s love song aside, rivals know Marine is French politics' truest pirate in a tempest, the first on deck to savor the spoils.