French Police Raid Sarkozy’s Home, Offices in Illicit-Campaign-Funding Inquiry

Police raids on Tuesday targeting the home and offices of former French President Nicolas Sarkozy aim to turn up evidence in alleged illegal campaign funding of conservatives by L'Oréal heiress Liliane Bettencourt

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Nicolas Sarkozy attends a national ceremony of remembrance in Paris on June 14, 2012, for four French soldiers killed in a suicide attack in Afghanistan

Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy may be gone from power, but he’s not forgotten — especially among French justice officials. On Tuesday, investigating magistrates looking into alleged illegal campaign funding of Sarkozy’s conservative Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) party raided three different sites linked to the former head of state — including the swank 16th-arrondissement villa, Montmorency, he shares with his millionaire wife Carla Bruni. It’s unknown whether those searches turned up anything salient to the high-profile case, which involves at least one person claiming that Sarkozy himself pocketed illicit donations for his 2007 presidential campaign. Sarkozy has previously denied that he or his party received such funds. The former President did not immediately respond to Tuesday’s developments from Canada, where he’s spending what is now a ruined family vacation.

The raids — which also targeted the offices of Sarkozy’s personal attorney as well as his own legal practice — were launched by judges investigating allegations of illegal campaign financing that arose from a long-running, real-life soap opera. It began with a legal case filed by the daughter of billionaire L’Oréal heiress Liliane Bettencourt, who claimed her frail mother was being fleeced by a cabal of unscrupulous, self-serving advisers and intimates — one of whom received “gifts” from the elder Bettencourt of over $1 billion, including a tropical island. The inquiry into those contentions has since snaked outward into the political world, where they’ve ensnared several leading UMP officials, including key Sarkozy backers. Press revelations in the case produced both substantiated accusations and unconfirmed claims that combined to create a negative image of France’s former ruling conservatives in the public mind — all of which factored significantly into Sarkozy’s re-election loss. Central to it was the perception that Sarkozy and the right accorded favors, tailored policy and even turned a blind eye to tax evasion to retain the political and financial support of their superwealthy patrons. By mid-2010, the scent of scandal had become so strong within Sarkozy’s inner circle that the President was forced to use a nationally televised address to counterattack — with limited success, as the election results attested in the end.

The Bettencourt affair only snowballed from there. One Cabinet member central to Sarkozy’s reform drive was ultimately dropped from the government after Bettencourt employees claimed he’d repeatedly acted as the UMP’s bagman for illegal campaign donations. Later on, the former chief of France’s domestic intelligence agency and one of the country’s most powerful prosecutors — both well-known Sarkozy devotees — were, respectively, placed under investigation in the case.

As the scandal raged and the inquiry pressed ahead, Sarkozy would issue the occasional denial or lament that new revelations in the case were too fanciful to be taken seriously. All that changed on June 15, however, when the presidential immunity Sarkozy enjoyed expired in the wake of his May re-election defeat. As much of France watched in anticipation of the investigating magistrates quickly calling the former leader in for interrogation, Sarkozy took the initiative by sending justice officials his personal agendas from the 2007 period in question. Those, his lawyer says, clearly show Sarkozy’s schedule was so crammed at the time that he couldn’t have possibly stopped by the Bettencourt home to receive money on the dates claimed — especially without drawing the crowds and media attention that the then front-running candidate attracted.

Still, many observers believe that Sarkozy may well become only the second former French leader in history to be implicated in a criminal case — the first being his predecessor as President, Jacques Chirac, who was indicted and convicted on corruption charges. To make matters worse, the Bettencourt caper is also only one of four legal investigations that could ultimately thrust Sarkozy directly into the fast-charging headlines of French legal inquiries.