Bettencourt affair: case dismissed against Sarkozy

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After a long and politically explosive legal saga, the proceedings against Nicolas Sarkozy in relation to the Bettencourt affair have been dropped. The former president, who had denied any wrongdoing, had faced allegations that he took advantage of the mental frailty of L'Oréal heiress Liliane Bettencourt to get cash for his 2007 election campaign. But on Monday the investigating magistrates in charge of this high-profile case decided not to send the former president to court to face charges. Allies believe this clears the path to his return to French politics. However ten others, including former employment minister and ex-UMP treasurer Éric Woerth, are to stand trial over the Bettencourt affair. Michel Deléan reports.

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Investigating judges have dropped all proceedings against Nicolas Sarkozy in relation to the Bettencourt affair in which the former president was accused of having taken advantage of L'Oréal heiress Liliane Bettencourt's mental frailty in order to get cash for his 2007 election campaign. The two Bordeaux-based examining magistrates, who in March provoked a political storm when they placed Sarkozy under formal investigation in connection with the claims, announced on Monday that they had decided that the case against the ex-head of state should be dropped. Sarkozy himself had always vehemently denied the allegations.

There was immediate satisfaction from supporters of Nicolas Sarkozy, who believe that the decision clears any final obstacle for his return to front-line French politics ahead of the next presidential election in 2017, even though his name has been linked with other scandals, including allegations his 2007 campaign was funded by the Libyan regime of Colonel Gaddafi.

However, ten others were sent to face trial accused of “abusing the weakness” of Liliane Bettencourt, who will be 91 later this month, among them former employment minister and the treasurer of Sarkozy's UMP party in 2007 Éric Woerth and the society photographer François-Marie Banier who had been a close friend of Bettencourt. Their trial is expected to take place some time in 2014.

Before Monday's formal announcement there had already been rumours that the case against Sarkozy would be dropped. Late last month the two examining magistrates Jean-Michel Gentil and Valérie Noël had seen the court of appeal uphold the validity of their investigation into Sarkozy and others in the Bettencourt affair. But in the end they have followed the same approach as the prosecution services, who in June argued that the case against the ex-head of state be dropped and who had apparently let it be known they would have appealed against a decision to send him for trial. A number of lawyers close to the case had also concluded that there was insufficient evidence to send Sarkozy to stand trial for “abusing the weakness” of Liliane Bettencourt. One official close to the case, who made it clear that he “didn't particularly like” Sarkozy, told Le Point: “Dismissing the case is what anyone would have done having read the files.”

Eric Woerth Eric Woerth
By dismissing the case, the judges have removed the possibility of what would have been a potentially embarrassing acquittal of the former president at a trial, given the row that greeted the decision to place him under formal investigation, which in French law is one step short of formal charges.

The decision by the judges will, though, meet with different reactions from lawyers who are still involved in the Bettencourt affair. The others who are now charged with taking advantage of Betencourt's mental frailty would doubtless have appreciated allowing the former president to take the leading role on the benches of the accused. However Liliane Bettencourt's family may well be relieved by the decision. According to one of the family's lawyers Sarkozy's presence “would not have been good for the case, it would have been a diversion”. The family is apparently keen to de-politicise the case as much as possible to ensure that the affair becomes once more – as it started –  focussed on the “swindlers” who surrounded and preyed on Liliane Bettencourt.

Yet next year's trial will still have a strong political dimension because of the presence of Éric Woerth, who has been sent for trial even though the prosecution asked for the case against him to be dismissed too.

The dropping of proceedings against Sarkozy does, however, close a chapter on what has been one of the most dramatic judicial investigations in recent years in France. For some time the judges had the former president in their sights. They drew up detailed charts highlighting the worrying coincidence of a series of dates and events thrown up by the investigation: the bringing in of cash from Swiss bank accounts for Liliane Bettencourt (four million euros from early 2007 to the end of 2009), the meetings between wealth manager Patrice de Maistre and Éric Woerth, and, finally, the discreet visits made by Sarkozy himself to the Bettencourts' residence at Neuilly-sur-Seine, west of Paris, before the formal election campaign began in 2007, as described by a number of witnesses.

Initially, on November 22nd, 2012, the judges placed the former president under the status of “assisted witness”, a status unique to French law which suggests the person may be involved in the case under investigation but there is no compelling indication they have committed a crime. Then on March 21st this year the judges placed Sarkozy under formal investigation, suggesting they had “grave and concordant” evidence that a crime may have been committed.

According to one lawyer, what happened between these two events was that Sarkozy's defence team had particularly “irritated the judges”. Thierry Herzog, Sarkozy's friend and lawyer, had publicly laid into the investigation, accusing the judges of getting confused between the name Bettencourt and that of 'Betancourt' – Ingrid Betancourt is the Franco-Colombian politician who escaped from her Colombian captors in 2008. Herzog also told Europe 1 radio that “the Bettencourt affair is an affair that doesn’t exist”.

In any case, though he will not physically or legally be present, the figure of Nicolas Sarkozy will still cast a shadow over the proceedings of the court case next year, thanks to the presence of Éric Woerth among the defendants. Moreover, in a separate strand of the Bettencourt affair, Éric Woerth and Patrice de Maistre are also to stand trial for influence peddling; the allegation is that Woerth procured Maistre a Légion d'honneur medal in return for the latter giving Woerth's wife Florence a job with the Bettencourt family. Both men deny the claims.

Alongside Woerth, those facing trial for taking advantage of the heiress are: Bettencourt's former wealth manager, Patrice de Maistre, society phographer François-Marie Banier, Banier's partner Martin d'Orgeval, the notaries Jean-Michel Normand and Patrice Bonduelle, Carlos Cassina Vejarano,the former administrator of the Bettencourt’s Seychelles island, d’Arros, tax lawyer Pascal Wilhelm, businessman Stéphane Courbit, and Liliane Bettencourt’s former nurse Alain Thurin. The charges range from abuse of weakness, abuse of trust, and aggravated fraud to receipt and laundering of the proceeds of these offences. All deny the charges.

In addition to Nicolas Sarkozy one other man, tax lawyer Fabrice Goguel, has also seen proceedings against him dropped.

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English version by Michael Streeter

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