Sarkozy denies receiving money from L'Oreal heiress

Reuters News

11/24/2012 9:37:40 AM - Reuters News

By Astrid Wendlandt

PARIS (Reuters) - Former president Nicolas Sarkozy denied receiving "a penny" in campaign funds from France's richest woman Liliane Bettencourt, according to excerpts of his testimony to judges published on Saturday by the French daily Sud-Ouest.

Sarkozy, who lost power in May, was questioned for 12 hours on Thursday by a judge who is trying to establish whether his election win in 2007 was aided by illegal funding by the L'Oreal heiress.

He denies any wrongdoing and his spokeswoman was not immediately available to comment on Saturday about the report.

"I have known the Bettencourts since I was 28-years-old. I am now 57," Sarkozy told judges, according to excerpts of his testimony published by Sud-Ouest.

"I have conducted five municipal campaigns," Sarkozy said about the Paris suburb Neuilly of which he was mayor and where Bettencourt and her daughter still live.

"They never gave me a penny, I never gave them one and I never asked them for anything. I was not going to start at 52 as France's president."

Sarkozy has bowed out of politics but remains a possible candidate for the conservative camp in the next presidential contest in 2017.

Initial suspicions over funding were fuelled three years ago when a woman who worked as an accountant for the mentally frail Bettencourt alleged that a large cash withdrawal was earmarked for Sarkozy's presidential election campaign.

Bettencourt was declared in a state of dementia in 2006 and was placed under the guardianship of her family in 2011.

Asked about Bettencourt's mental health, Sud-Ouest quoted Sarkozy as saying: "When I see her, I do not see any sign (of vulnerability). She is well dressed, she does not stutter, she does not say any implausible things."

The Bettencourt family, which is still the largest individual shareholder in cosmetics giant L'Oreal with a 30 percent stake, has long had close connections with the UMP Party of Sarkozy, who lost presidential immunity when he left office.

The judges who questioned Sarkozy classified him as a witness, a status in French judicial procedure which means he is not liable to face trial.

The Bettencourt affair is not the only thorn in Sarkozy's side. The former French president may also be asked to testify in two other judicial investigations concerning the terms of a submarine sale to Pakistan and lavish spending on opinion polls by his office when he was president.

(Editing by Alison Williams)