Sarkozy grilled on election money from ailing heiress

French judges have questioned ex-President Nicolas Sarkozy over claims his 2007 election campaign was financed with funds secured illegally from France's richest woman.

In a case that could wreck the 57-year-old's hopes of a political comeback, Sarkozy is suspected of taking financial advantage of elderly L'Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt when she was too frail to fully understand what she was doing.

Sarkozy's appearance comes with his right-wing UMP party in turmoil after the battle to replace him degenerated into mud-slinging and both contenders claimed victory.

Examining magistrate Jean-Michel Gentil and two other judges spent most of yesterday quizzing Sarkozy about how he obtained funding from Bettencourt, who is now 90 and in poor health since 2006.

Judicial sources said Sarkozy could be formally indicted on a charge of taking advantage of someone in a position of weakness, although the magistrate could also interrogate him as a witness under caution.

The allegation against Sarkozy is two-fold: the money obtained from her took his campaign funds over legal limits and it was secured without her full knowledge or consent.

This latter claim was made by Bettencourt's former accountant, Claire Thibout, in 2010. She told police she'd handed envelopes stuffed with cash to Bettencourt's right-hand man, Patrice de Maistre, on the understanding it was to be passed to Sarkozy's campaign treasurer, Eric Woerth.

Maistre withdrew €4 million ($6.3 million) in cash from Bettencourt's Swiss bank account in seven instalments between 2007 and 2009. It's suspected some or all of it could have found its way to Sarkozy or his party.

Sarkozy, who lost immunity from prosecution after losing the presidential election to Socialist Francois Hollande in May, is facing a slew of legal inquiries including probes into opinion poll contracts, an illegal police investigation into journalists and alleged kickbacks on a Pakistani arms deal used to finance the right in 1995, when Sarkozy was Budget Minister.

- AAP

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