Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy has been formally placed under investigation after a judge filed preliminary charges over allegations that he illegally took donations from France’s richest heiress while he campaigned for the presidency.
Sarkozy, 58, is accused of “abuse of someone in an impaired state” following allegations that he asked L’Oreal cosmetics heiress Liliane Bettencourt, 90, for financial donations.
Bettencourt, who is reported to suffer from Alzheimer’s disease, has since been placed under legal protection.
Under French law, preliminary charges mean the investigating magistrate has reason to believe the crime was committed, but it also gives officials more time to investigate. The charges may later be dropped or could lead to a trial.
Prosecutors said Sarkozy was questioned for hours on Thursday in a Bordeaux courthouse, before the charges were formally announced. A three-judge panel chose to limit the scope of the charges to Sarkozy’s activity in February 2007 to the rest of that year, according to the prosecutor’s office.
Prosecutors have noted that the former president is presumed to be innocent of any wrongdoing while the investigation unfolds.
One of the issues investigating judge Jean-Michel Gentil is looking at, is exactly how many times Sarkozy visited the home of Bettencourt in the run-up to his winning 2007 campaign for president.
Bettencourt’s ex-accountant, Claire Thibout, told police investigators that she gave 150,000 euros ($192,000) to the manager of Bettencourt’s fortune with an instruction that it was to be passed on to Sarkozy’s campaign treasurer.
Sarkozy’s charging follows the loss of his legal immunity from prosecution when he failed to win re-election as President last May. In November, he was classed as a so-called “assisting witness,” on the understanding that he could face charges based on allegations of abusing someone in an impaired state, swindling and abuse of confidence.
Thierry Mariani, a lawmaker and supporter in Sarkozy’s conservative party, has said he believes the charges are politically motivated and are part of an effort to discredit Sarkozy. Meanwhile, socialist President Francois Hollande is experiencing his lowest poll figures just 10 months into his five-year term.
Political analysts says the charges against Sarkozy are unlikely to have any immediate political impact as he has already declared his political career to be over. Despite rumblings that he might run in the next presidential race, it’s not until 2017.
News of Sarkozy’s legal troubles come after a fresh scandal engulfs Hollande’s government this week. Budget Minister Jerome Cahuzac has resigned over allegations that he stashed a portion of his earnings abroad to avoid paying the notoriously high French taxes.