PARIS (AP) — Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy went before a judge on Thursday to respond to suspicions he illegally accepted donations from France's richest woman to fund his 2007 election campaign.
The judge in Bordeaux could decide whether the 57-year-old conservative, a polarizing figure who often faced criticism for cozy ties to the rich, will be charged with taking advantage of the 90-year-old L'Oreal heiress, Liliane Bettencourt. Sarkozy has consistently denied all allegations.
Bettencourt's former accountant told police that she handed over €150,000 ($192,000) in cash she was told would be passed on to Sarkozy's campaign treasurer. In July, a magistrate ordered the seizure of Sarkozy's diaries.
The sum, although it pales in comparison to U.S. campaign funding amounts, shocked many French citizens because spending on political campaigns is tightly limited here. Individual campaign contributions to candidates are limited to €4,600, and no candidate can spend more than €22 million on an entire presidential campaign. The French government reimburses some of that money to the winner.
By comparison, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney each raised and spent hundreds of millions of dollars in the campaign for this year's U.S. presidential elections.
The probe centers on the finances of Bettencourt, Europe's richest woman and the focus of a long-running family feud over her fortune that ballooned in 2010 into a multi-layered investigation and political affair. Bettencourt, who was reported to suffer from Alzheimer's disease, has since been placed under legal protection.
Sarkozy's lost his immunity from prosecution when he lost the presidency to Socialist Francois Hollande in May. Since then, his conservative UMP party has fallen into disarray. The former president's ties to the wealthy alienated many in France, but he remains popular among the country's conservatives despite the legal problems that have dogged him since leaving office.
Sarkozy's lawyer, Thierry Herzog, told the Sipa news agency that after Thursday's hearing Sarkozy could either face preliminary charges or be given special witness status with the possibility of facing charges later.