By Kim Willsher
3:05 AM PST, November 22, 2012
PARIS -- Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy was questioned by a judge Thursday morning over whether he received illegal political donations from an ailing French billionaire for his successful 2007 election campaign.
Sarkozy, who has kept a low profile since losing his reelection bid in May, arrived at the courthouse in the southwestern city of Bordeaux to be quizzed over allegations that he was given brown envelopes stuffed with cash by France's richest woman, Liliane Bettencourt, the heiress to the L'Oreal cosmetics company fortune.
Investigators are also looking into whether Sarkozy and his center-right political party took advantage of 90-year-old Bettencourt's fragile state of mind and whether he used his power as president to hinder the criminal inquiry.
Sarkozy, who has denied all wrongdoing, lost his immunity from prosecution after being denied a second term of office by Socialist rival Francois Hollande, the new French president.
Sarkozy arrived at Bordeaux airport on a private jet and was driven to the courthouse in a Renault Espace with blacked-out windows. He declined to comment as he entered the building.
His appearance before the judge was closed to the public, as is usual during an investigation, and journalists were ordered to remain outside the courthouse.
Sarkozy, 57, is suspected of accepting nearly $200,000 from Bettencourt in campaign donations, contrary to election rules that limit donations to about $6,000. Police raided his home and offices in July as part of the inquiry being run by investigating judge Jean-Michel Gentil.
The scandal broke in 2009 when Sarkozy was still president. It had its roots in a family dispute over whether Bettencourt, whose father founded L'Oreal, was well enough to manage her estimated $22-billion fortune. The dispute turned political when Bettencourt's accountant claimed the heiress had given Sarkozy and his advisors cash donations.
Sarkozy's court appearance comes as he is reported to be considering his political future after his center-right Union for a Popular Movement party, or UMP, collapsed into bitter infighting following a closely contested leadership battle.
As squabbling over who won the election continued into a fourth day, a poll showed that 52% of UMP supporters considered Sarkozy the party's best hope of unseating Hollande in 2017.
Copyright © 2013, Los Angeles Times