Nicolas Sarkozy personally received cash handouts from the L’Oréal cosmetics heiress Liliane Bettencourt for his 2007 election campaign, a judge who first investigated the affair claims in an explosive new book.
By Henry Samuel, Paris, 6:00AM BST 01 Sep 2011
The assertions by the highly respected magistrate Isabelle Prevost-Desprez threaten to reignite a political and financial scandal that gripped France a year ago and rocked Mr Sarkozy’s government.
She makes the claims in “Sarko m’a tuer” (Sarko Killed Me), a book by two investigative journalists from Le Monde newspaper, out today (Thurs). Gérard Davet and Fabrice Lhomme interviewed 27 politicians, magistrates, businessmen and other figures who say they were professionally broken and personally humiliated by Mr Sarkozy and his inner circle.
The authors claim they were bugged, tailed by French secret services and that their flats were mysteriously burgled.
In the book, Miss Desprez cites a witness who claims to have seen France’s wealthiest woman hand bank notes to Mr Sarkozy. Excerpts were published by Liberation newspaper.
“Liliane Bettencourt’s nurse told my stenographer, after being questioned by me: ‘I saw cash payments to Sarkozy, but I couldn’t say it in my statement’,” Miss Desprez is quoted as saying. She adds that she was “struck by the fear of witnesses” when it came to mentioning the French president under oath.
Mr Sarkozy’s office categorically denied the claims, calling them “scandalous, unfounded and untruthful.”
Jean-Francois Copé, head of Mr Sarkozy’s UMP party, suggested that the timing of the claims was suspicious, given that the presidential election is only a few months away.
François Hollande, the Socialist presidential front-runner said he was “cautious” about the claims.
But he said: “This book reveals that there appears to be within the Elysée a cell right by the president which, together with the police and judiciary, exerts pressure so that some scandals come to light and others stifled.”
The Bettencourt affair first surfaced late 2007, when the 88-year-old billionaire’s daughter, Francoise Meyers-Bettencourt, sued photographer Francois-Marie Banier, a friend of the heiress, asserting that he had bamboozled her mother out of almost a billion euros in life insurance, cash and artworks.
The subsequent investigation soon mushroomed into a wider political scandal, involving allegations of influence-peddling by then budget minister and former party secretary Eric Woerth and illegal financing of Mr Sarkozy’s party.
French law limits donations to political parties to 7,500 euros (£6,650) per person per year. Only 150 euros (£133) may be given in cash.
Miss Desproz was taken off the case last November due to her acrimonious relationship with Philippe Courroye, the prosecutor of Nanterre, widely seen as being very close to Mr Sarkozy.
She was unable to investigate the nurse’s claims as her investigation was limited to the mother-daughter feud. But she told the book’s authors she was convinced Mr Sarkozy sought to eliminate her for fear of the cash allegations coming to court.
The judge could face disciplinary action for violation of a witness’s privacy and failing in her “duty of reserve”.
Mr Sarkozy’s name has featured in previous allegations of illegal party funding concerning Mrs Bettencourt, but never as direct recipient.
Three Bordeaux judges are continuing their investigations into several aspects of the Bettencourt case. They are investigating allegations Mr Woerth received cash payments and was guilty of a conflict of interest as his wife worked for Mrs Bettencourt’s wealth manager.
He and the government have repeatedly denied any wrongdoing.
The family feud in the Bettencourt case appeared to end in December 2010, when the mother and daughter reconciled, but in June, it flared up anew after Mrs Bettencourt Meyers once again sought legal wardship for her mother, saying she was surrounded by a predatory “circle.