Witness Clears Sarkozy In Bettencourt Scandal (For Now)

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In the interests of thorough reporting, fairness to French President Nicolas Sarkozy—and adding new information without messing up the date of yesterday’s post with updating after the calendar has turned—herewith an amendment to Wednesday’s item on France’s epic Bettencourt scandal.

By the end of Wednesday, the Elysée was no longer alone in denying revelations in a new book claiming Sarkozy had received presumably illegal cash campaign contributions from L’Oréal heiress Liliane Bettencourt prior to his 2007 presidential election. In an interview published late in the day by French weekly Marianne, the Bettencourt domestic nurse cited in the book as the source of the claim refuted having ever made it, and said it was incorrectly attributed to her. Score it just another twist in the agonizingly tentacular  Bettencourt scandal–no doubt not the last of its kind.The denial came after the new book quoted a judge who led the legal inquiry into myriad accusations in the case—including claims that members of government and officials of Sarkozy’s conservative party swapped favors with Bettencourt and her VIP entourage, and repeatedly received envelopes full of cash as donations for rightist election campaigns (most of those contributions having apparently exceeded legal limits). The book quotes the judge recounting the Bettencourt nurse having been circumspect in discussing money swaps in the Bettencourt household while giving testimony; but adding the nurse cited Sarkozy as having been one of the conservative figures who pocketed such wads in comments to a legal assistant off the record once the official interrogation was over. The Elysée responded immediately calling the allegation baseless; that was soon followed by the nurse issuing a denial of her own.

“I never spoke of envelopes being given to Nicolas Sarkozy or anyone else,” the nurse, identified as HY, told Marianne. “I didn’t speak about that to the judge, nor to her assistant.”

Exit the dramatic finger of accusation pointing directly at the president, stage right.

However, nurse HY elsewhere appears to support the book’s wider thesis that the Elysée and its allies  have persecuted people viewed as enemy threats. To that end, the book’s authors profile a range of figures they say became victims of intimidation and destabilization campaigns after they’d been designated as potentially damaging to Sarkozy’s political fortunes. In her Marianne interview—even as she denies having ever spoken about Sarkozy in the affair–the nurse says she, too, has come under pressure in the case.

“I received death threats,” HY said. “I was told that my body would be found in the Seine due to my testimony in the case.”

Of course, HY doesn’t say who threatened her—and it’s doubtful anyone who did would allow themselves to be linked to higher figures (presuming such a tie exists). However, like much of the other partial, unconfirmed, or hearsay accusations that have arisen from the Bettencourt saga, the book’s claims—and HY’s manner of responding to those—leaves many commentators continuing to regard the Elysée with skepticism despite the absence of any guns, smoking or otherwise.

The reason? Some commentators say that even unproven, any allegations in the Bettencourt affaire simply join the list of  suspicious circumstances that linking Sarkozy to a variety of scandals. Then there’s that bit about the Elysée’s reputation for banging heads when challenged. On Thursday, le Monde detailed its claims that French security and intelligence services were deployed to spy on its journalists investigating the Bettencourt case. That article coincided with a wave of editorials in the French press Thursday denouncing “the climate of fear”  reporters pursing the Bettencourt story work in–and more generally decrying what some pundits called strong-arm tactics of intimidation and pressure the Sarkozy Elysée has routinely used to stifle troublesome coverage.

None of that carries any legal consequence unless clear evidence that laws were broken arises—not likely, given what’s been turned up by inquiries already well under way. Still, readers vote, and may do so in part on how they judge Sarkozy vis-a-vis the different accusations against him. Meaning, we’re probably in for an exciting and dramatic trial that will take place awaiting a final voter verdict during presidential elections next spring.