PARIS -- French investigators have dropped criminal charges against former President Nicolas Sarkozy for allegedly soliciting illegal campaign funds from the country's richest woman.
The unexpected decision on Monday, just two weeks after a court ruled the investigation could proceed, clears the way for Sarkozy, who had vehemently denied the accusations, to run for reelection in 2017.
However, the charges -- termed an abuse of weakness --were maintained against Eric Woerth, a former government minister who was Sarkozy's treasurer in the 2007 campaign; Bettencourt's former companion, the society photographer François-Marie Banier; her lawyer, Pascal Wilhelm; her financial advisor, Patrice de Maistre and six others.
Their trial is expected to be held next year.
The public prosecutor in Bordeaux, where the investigation is being conducted, had said the case against Sarkozy stood no chance of success, and threatened to appeal any decision to send the former president to trial, delaying the investigation against the other accused.
The former president is still dogged by a number of other legal cases, including a scandal over millions of euros in public money paid in compensation to a controversial businessman and friend, Bernard Tapie. Sarkozy is also facing questions about the "Karachi Affair," a complicated corruption case linked to arms sales and a bombing in Pakistan in 2002 that killed 11 French nationals.
Before the May 2012 election campaign, Sarkozy had said that if he lost his bid for reelection, France would "never hear of me again."
He has maintained a reasonably low profile since his defeat by Socialist Francois Hollande, but he and his entourage have begun hinting of his return to the front line of French politics to "save" the country.
Several members of the right-of-center opposition Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) party, are said to be interested in running in 2017, but Sarkozy has emerged as the popular candidate to challenge Hollande.
Last month, an opinion poll by the French Institute of Public Opinion found that 62% of UMP voters questioned wanted him to run in 2017, well ahead of any rivals in the party.
During a visit to the Haute-Savoie region four weeks ago, Sarkozy dined with local UMP lawmakers.
"I can't be bothered with small political news," he told journalists afterward. "But France, that's something else."