PARIS (AP) — Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy was cleared Monday of allegations that he illegally took donations from France's richest woman on the way to his 2007 election victory, his lawyer and an official said.
The announcement fanned speculation of a political comeback for Sarkozy, who lost the presidency to Socialist Francois Hollande last year.
Citing a lack of evidence, two investigating magistrates dismissed claims that Sarkozy had taken advantage of the frail state of Liliane Bettencourt, the L'Oreal cosmetics heiress who is now 90, the official in the Bordeaux prosecutor's said. She spoke on condition of anonymity because she wasn't permitted to speak to the media.
"I am delighted about this decision, which I expected," Sarkozy's lawyer Thierry Herzog told reporters outside the former president's Paris office. After leaving a private meeting on Monday at the main Paris mosque, Sarkozy nodded to cameras but did not speak to journalists.
Ten other people — including Sarkozy's former budget minister, Eric Woerth — are still expected to face trial next year on charges in the case that include alleged fraud and money laundering.
A former Bettencourt accountant told police she handed over 150,000 euros ($192,000) in cash that she was told would be passed to Woerth, who was Sarkozy's campaign treasurer for the 2007 presidential bid. That was well over the maximum allowed campaign contributions under French law.
After reports of the illegal campaign cash first surfaced in 2010, investigators gradually pieced together their case, coming closer and closer to Sarkozy himself. In March this year, he was handed preliminary charges, meaning that magistrates had reason to believe wrongdoing was committed. But after deeper investigation, the case against Sarkozy collapsed because of lack of evidence.
"The dismissal is good news, but I am not surprised because this case file was totally empty," said Patrick Balkany, a National Assembly lawmaker and longtime Sarkozy friend. "The surprise was that he was under investigation at all. Slapping preliminary charges against a former president is no small thing."
Sarkozy, 58, has drifted out of the political arena but polls show he's still popular among his fellow conservatives, whose UMP party is riven with infighting. He has been seen more often in public in recent weeks, prompting talk that he might run for president again in 2017.
While Sarkozy is off the hook in the so-called Bettencourt affair, his name has surfaced in other investigations.
Relatives of French victims of a deadly 2002 bombing in Pakistan filed a complaint in Paris last year against Sarkozy and two former advisers for allegedly violating a duty to secrecy in an investigation of the case. The Karachi car bombing killed 15 people, mostly French defense contractors.