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Sarkozy illegal funding probe sparks fresh war of words

  • Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy (C) walks amidst French and Libyan officials as he arrives in Benghazi to attend a military parade to celebrate the second anniversary of NATO's first military operation in Libya on March 19, 2013. AFP PHOTO / ADBULLAH DOMA

PARIS: Nicolas Sarkozy's lawyer on Sunday launched a fresh salvo against the judge who charged the former president with taking financial advantage of France's richest woman, as a public outcry among Sarkozy supporters grows.

But according to an opinion poll, the allegations made against Sarkozy last week as part of an illegal party funding probe appeared not to have affected his chances of staging a presidential comeback in 2017 -- which he has hinted at.

"One can in the very least question the impartiality of this judge," Sarkozy's lawyer Thierry Herzog told Sunday newspaper Journal du Dimanche.

Judge Jean-Michel Gentil caused a huge stir on Thursday by summoning Sarkozy and placing him under judicial investigation for allegedly abusing the weakness of 90-year-old L'Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt.

Investigators suspect up to four million euros ($5.2 million) of Bettencourt's cash made its way into the coffers of Sarkozy's UMP party.

Sarkozy has repeatedly denied claims he accepted cash-stuffed envelopes from the world's richest woman -- whose mental capacity began to deteriorate in 2006, medical experts say -- to fund his successful 2007 campaign.

Since Thursday, Sarkozy's backers have railed against the judge, who in turn has made it known through his lawyer that he is "tired of being abused while trying to conduct his work as honestly as possible."

In the interview Sunday, Herzog said Gentil was among 81 other judges who had put their names to an opinion column -- published on June 12 last year by leading newspaper Le Monde -- accusing Sarkozy and his predecessor Jacques Chirac of "wishing to protect the corrupt".

"Five days after signing this column, the same judge ordered four raids in Sarkozy's home, his office and his secretary's house," Herzog said.

The lawyer said there was "not one witness, or a single sign" to prove that "Liliane Bettencourt has given even a centime to Nicolas Sarkozy," calling the ruling "grotesque" and "unfair". He has said he will appeal.

Bettencourt's former accountant, Claire Thibout, told police in 2010 she had handed envelopes filled with cash to Bettencourt's right-hand man on the understanding it was to be passed on to Sarkozy's campaign treasurer, Eric Woerth. Woerth has already been charged in the affair.

Sarkozy faces allegations of obtaining significant amounts of money from Bettencourt, breaching electoral spending limits and taking advantage of a person weakened by ill health.

Anyone convicted of exploiting a person's weakened mental state can be punished by up to three years in jail, fined up to 375,000 euros ($484,000), and banned from holding public office for up to five years.

But on Sunday, a poll of 1,088 people published in the Le Parisien newspaper showed 63 percent did not think the scandal would affect Sarkozy's career.

 
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