Just as rumours about a potential bid by Sarkozy to recapture the presidency in 2017 were swirling, the former French president finds himself suspected of accepting millions in cash from a wealthy heiress suffering from poor mental health.


Having announced his retirement from public life in the wake of his defeat to current President François Hollande, Sarkozy has recently hinted that he may take another shot at the presidency in 2017.

Still popular with right-wing voters, he has framed his future decision as a matter of duty to his country, telling right-leaning French magazine Valeurs Actuelles earlier this month: “There will unfortunately come a time when the question will no longer be ‘Do you want to?’ but ‘Do you have any choice?’.”

But Sarkozy’s hopes of moving back into the Elysée Palace in four years appeared damaged Friday morning, after the former French president was placed under investigation for illegal party financing.

Specifically, he is suspected of accepting envelopes stuffed with cash (up to four million euros or $5.2 million) from 90-year-old L’Oréal heiress Liliane Bettencourt – the world’s richest woman – to fund his 2007 election campaign, while Bettencourt was suffering from mental deterioration.

If the formal inquiry finds enough evidence, the 58-year-old Sarkozy would faces charges of breaching electoral spending limits and taking advantage of an individual weakened by poor health.

Bad timing for Sarkozy

“The investigation is likely to be lengthy and to damage the right’s natural candidate in the 2017 presidential election,” Bruno Cautrès, of France’s Centre for Political Research at Sciences Po (Cevipof), told FRANCE 24.

Cautrès also pointed out that “the news comes just as the [centre-right party] UMP was emerging from its bitterly divisive leadership battle”. That face-off saw former Prime Minister François Fillon and former party head Jean-François Copé locked in a stalemate over who would lead the UMP, and Sarkozy increasingly viewed as the most viable option for the next presidential election.

Recent polls had even shown the French preferring Sarkozy to Hollande, a stinging rebuke of the current president who has been portrayed as ineffective in tackling France’s economic difficulties.

Sarkozy’s lawyer, Thierry Herzog, slammed the decision to investigate his client as “legally incoherent and unfair” and said he would immediately move to have the investigation dropped.

Though French presidents enjoy immunity from prosecution while in office, they often face investigations after their terms. Former President Jacques Chirac was convicted in 2011 of corruption while mayor of Paris several years earlier, though he was ultimately excused from attending his trial for health reasons and handed a two-year suspended prison sentence.

Right rallies around one of their own

Various right-wing figures leapt to Sarkozy’s defence, with Lionnel Luca, a member of parliament from the southeast Alpes-Maritimes department, leading the charge on Twitter. “The only chance FH [François Hollande] has in 2017 is by eliminating by any means possible the candidacy of the only opponent who can beat him,” he tweeted.

Laurent Wauquiez, a party heavyweight who served in various ministerial posts under Sarkozy, told radio station Europe 1: “The timing is no coincidence. This lands at a moment when the French are transferring their trust back to Nicolas Sarkozy, compared to a disappointing François Hollande…I don’t like it when the judiciary is used for political ends.”

Meanwhile, the French regional press generally saw the situation as a serious strike against Sarkozy’s future political plans. “While his party was splintering, Nicolas Sarkozy was moving his chess pieces forward,” Raymond Couraud wrote in L’Alsace, a daily newspaper in eastern France. “Now this legal turn of events will provoke sighs of relief from UMP leaders who were hoping to become his official successor.”

But other editorialists noted that with the next election four years away, the famously combative Sarkozy could bounce back. “The former president just took a hit,” wrote Christophe Bonnefoy of northeastern daily Le Journal de la Haute-Marne. “But the game is far from over. Nicolas Sarkozy likes battles.”

[Photo above of Nicolas Sarkozy via AFP]