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Bettencourt affair: Sarkozy secret cash case ‘dropped’

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Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy

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A criminal investigation into former French President Nicolas Sarkozy, for allegedly soliciting secret campaign financing from France’s richest woman, has been dropped, judicial sources say.

Mr Sarkozy has been left off a list of those to appear for trial over the so-called Bettencourt affair, they say.

He had denied visiting L’Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt – alleged to be mentally frail – to solicit cash.

The decision could leave Mr Sarkozy, 58, clear to contest the 2017 election.

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Analysis

image of Hugh SchofieldHugh SchofieldBBC News, Paris

The judges are not saying they do not think Bettencourt money was illegally made over to his campaign. What they are saying is that there is no proof Nicolas Sarkozy personally pressured the L’Oreal heiress into giving it.

So the trial for “abuse of mental frailty” will go ahead – its star accused now being UMP ex-treasurer Eric Woerth. But politically, the news is that Sarko is off the hook.

True, there are other investigations into which he could be drawn. The so-called Karachi affair about kickbacks from Pakistan; or claims he used influence to get businessman Bernard Tapie a massive state pay-out.

But the Bettencourt affair was the one that mattered. Before Monday, he was actually “mis en examen” – placed under investigation – which normally means there will be a trial. Exonerated, he is free to plan. The vision of a comeback in 2017 for Mr Sarkozy – a pocket political dynamo – has now slipped perceptibly into focus.

Although unpopular when he lost his attempt to be re-elected in 2012, opinion polls now suggest he would beat President Francois Hollande in a re-run.

He has hinted at a comeback, saying earlier this year that he might have to return to “save” France from economic disaster under President Hollande.

The possibility of a criminal case against him has, therefore, gripped the media in France.

‘Cash in envelopes’

Mrs Bettencourt’s accountant, Claire Thibout, has said she withdrew 150,000 euros (£125,000) in cash that was to be passed to Mr Sarkozy’s conservative UMP party in the run-up to his presidential election victory in 2007.

Individual campaign contributions in France are limited to 4,600 euros annually.

Mrs Bettencourt’s butler testified that Mr Sarkozy was a regular visitor to her home during his 2007 campaign.

But Mr Sarkozy insisted that he only saw Mrs Bettencourt once in that year.

The argument came to a dramatic head in March, when a judge summoned both Mr Sarkozy and the butler for a face-to-face encounter, after which preliminary charges were filed against the former president.

He was charged with taking advantage of Mrs Bettencourt, by accepting cash from her when she was too frail to know what she was doing.

L'Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt in October 2011The ex-president forged a close friendship with Mrs Bettencourt over the years

Mrs Bettencourt, now 90, has suffered from dementia since 2006, the AFP news agency reports.

Ten people are still facing trial over the case, Le Monde reports.

They include Mr Sarkozy’s former campaign aide and UMP treasurer – and later, the French budget minister – Eric Woerth, Le Monde says.

Bettencourt staff say Mr Woerth visited the house several times to pick up envelopes stuffed full of cash. He denies doing so.

It had never been alleged that Mr Sarkozy personally received money.

He still faces investigation in other cases – including another related to his 2007 presidential run, in which it is alleged that he received funding from Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi – which he strongly denies

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