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WHAT’S IN A NAME: The Bettencourt affair increasingly concerns L’Oréal heiress Liliane Bettencourt in name only. The placement of former French president Nicolas Sarkozy under formal investigation late Thursday for profiting from Bettencourt’s frailty during his 2007 presidential campaign was inevitably the subject of the weekend in both political circles and in the media. According to analysis in various weekend papers, Sarkozy is accused of “abusing the weakness” of Bettencourt, rather than receiving illegal campaign donations, which is essentially the crux of the matter, because the latter would now be proscribed.
Sarkozy’s supporters at the UMP party, despite ongoing conflicts within its ranks over leadership, spoke out in support of their former leader, some vehemently attacking the presiding judge in the case, Jean-Michel Gentil, accusing him of being biased against the former president.
This story first appeared in the March 25, 2013 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
François Fillon, who was prime minister under Sarkozy, tweeted on Friday: “I am stupefied by the decision to place Nicolas Sarkozy under formal investigation, which seems to me to be as unjust as it is extravagant.” Liliane Bettencourt’s former lawyer Georges Kiejman wrote an editorial in the weekend edition of right-leaning Le Figaro in which he questioned the reliability of the witness statements in the case against the former president.
Sarkozy himself having decided not to speak publicly on the matter, his lawyer Thierry Herzog gave an interview to the Journal du Dimanche newspaper, in which he questioned the judge’s motivation in the case. Herzog is expected to appeal Sarkozy’s placing under investigation as early as Monday.
Judge Gentil’s lawyer Rémi Barousse, meanwhile, was interviewed in Sunday’s edition of Le Parisien, saying his client had asked him to study the possibility of suing the former president for defamation after elements of Thursday’s nine-hour audition were revealed.
While some, including major voices within the UMP, questioned whether it was believable that Sarkozy would take advantage of a lady who was no longer in charge of all her mental faculties — medical reports have now determined that Bettencourt’s dementia was established by late 2006 — the vast majority of coverage concerns what has become a major conflict between France’s right and the judiciary, which constitutionally must remain independent. The general consensus, however, seems to be that Sarkozy, who had recovered his popularity significantly in recent opinion polls, is unlikely to bounce back in time to run for election in 2017, despite an poll in Sunday’s Le Parisien suggesting that 63 percent of the French population does not believe that the case will prevent his return to politics.