'Sarkozy abused L'Oreal heiress's frailty for funds'

Allies of former President Nicolas Sarkozy expressed shock and "incomprehension" on Friday after he was informed on Thursday that he would face a formal investigation into whether he abused the frailty of Liliane Bettencourt, 90, the heiress to the L'Oréal fortune and France's richest woman, to get funds for his 2007 presidential campaign.

Sarkozy has denied accepting illegal campaign money from Bettencourt, either personally or through his party treasurer at the time, Éric Woerth, as alleged by Bettencourt's former butler.

Sarkozy's lawyer, Thierry Herzog, called the judge's decision, which indicates that the judge believes that Sarkozy probably committed a crime, "incoherent" and "unjust." Herzog said he would appeal. The ruling does not necessarily mean that Sarkozy, who lost his re-election bid in May and with it his presidential immunity from prosecution, will stand trial.

Sarkozy is in a "state of mind of incomprehension", said Jean-François Copé, president of Sarkozy's political party, known as UMP for its initials in French, who told television channel France 2 that he had spoken with Sarkozy on Thursday night. Copé said he felt the same incomprehension.

Other political allies on the right professed shock, with some suggesting a conspiracy against Sarkozy, who has reportedly been weighing a return to politics.

"It's a political act," one lawmaker, Thierry Mariani, told Le Monde. "Certain magistrates have grudges to settle with the former president of the republic, and have hidden political urges."

On Twitter, Mariani's parliamentary colleague Lionnel Luca wondered if President François Hollande had not somehow influenced the magistrate investigating the Bettencourt case.

"The only chance for François Hollande in 2017 is to eliminate by all means the possibility of a candidacy of the only adversary who can defeat him!"

On the left, reactions were more guarded, perhaps, French news media suggested, given the resignation earlier in the week of Hollande's budget minister, Jérôme Cahuzac, after an announcement that he would be formally investigated on suspicion of tax fraud and money laundering.

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