Sarkozy cleared of extorting funds from Liliane Bettencourt

Collapse of case strengthens possibility of political comeback for former French president

Nicolas Sarkozy has been cleared of the “unfair” and “abominable” – in the words of his friends – allegation that he abused the senile dementia of France’s richest woman to extort campaign contributions from her.

Last March 21st, a judge in Bordeaux placed Mr Sarkozy formally under investigation on suspicion he had encouraged Liliane Bettencourt, who will turn 91 this month, to withdraw €4 million from undeclared Swiss bank accounts for his presidential campaign.

Judge Jean-Michel Gentil alleged that money was handed by Ms Bettencourt's financial adviser, Patrice de Maistre, to Mr Sarkozy's campaign treasurer, Eric Woerth, in brown paper envelopes.

Lack of evidence
Although Mr Sarkozy was cleared for lack of evidence, Mr de Maistre and Mr Woerth and eight others under investigation in the same case were not. They are expected to stand trial in 2014.

Mr Sarkozy reacted to the news on his Facebook page, saying: “The justice system has declared me innocent in the Bettencourt case.” He thanked “all those who supported me, helped me, gave me their confidence: my wife, my family, my friends, my political party . . . and especially all the French people whose loyalty was overwhelming”.

Henri Guaino, a deputy in the national assembly who was Mr Sarkozy’s speech-writer, had accused Judge Gentil of “dishonouring justice”.

His wife Carla Bruni Sarkozy said it was “unimaginable that this man could abuse the weakness of a lady as old as his mother”.

The collapse of the case against Mr Sarkozy strengthens the possibility of his political comeback. When he returned to UMP party headquarters in July, he was greeted with a standing ovation.

Polls show that 62 per cent of UMP supporters want Mr Sarkozy to be their candidate in the 2017 presidential election.

In a TNS Sofres poll published at the weekend, Mr Sarkozy ranked second in terms of politicians deemed to have a political future, after the current interior minister Manuel Valls.

This year, Mr Sarkozy has charged €75,000 for 45-minute speeches in the US, Russia, China, Brazil, Qatar, Singapore and Canada.

At the same time, he nurtures his political network, lunching with elected officials in the French Alps and on the Côte d’Azur last month. “I don’t want to worry about petty political news,” he told journalists in the Alps, “but France – that’s something different.”

Mr Sarkozy’s entourage were quick to celebrate his legal victory. “It will be exactly the same in the other affairs cited by the media,” predicted Nadine Morano, a former cabinet minister. “If he wants to come back to look after France, he will do it in all serenity.”

Financial scandals
Mr Sarkozy however is still embroiled in four other financial scandals including the arbitration that paid more than €400 million to his friend Bernard Tapie; allegations that the late Libyan dictator Muammar Gadafy contributed to his 2007 campaign; contracts for opinion polls awarded to a close adviser when Mr Sarkozy was president, and the shady financing of Edouard Balladur's 1995 presidential campaign, when Mr Sarkozy was Mr Balladur's spokesman.

Lara Marlowe

Lara Marlowe

Lara Marlowe is Paris Correspondent of The Irish Times