March 22, 2013 - 09:46 AMT
PanARMENIAN.Net - Ex-French president Nicolas Sarkozy was placed under formal investigation on Thursday, March 21, for "abuse of weakness" in a 2007 party funding case involving elderly L'Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt, the public prosecutor said, according to Reuters.
The risk for Sarkozy, unseated May last year but considered a potential conservative candidate in the 2017 presidential race, is that he may end up plagued by suspicion for months or years, even if his lawyer says there is no case against him.
Under French law, a formal investigation is the final step before a suspect is accused of a crime. Sarkozy, who only this month hinted he could make a political comeback, repeatedly has denied taking campaign funds from Bettencourt.
"Nicolas Sarkozy, who benefits from the presumption of innocence, had been notified that he has been placed under formal investigation for taking advantage of a vulnerable person in February 2007 and during 2007 to the detriment of Liliane Bettencourt," the prosecutor in the southwestern city of Bordeaux said in a statement after a hearing.
The 90-year-old Bettencourt is France's richest woman. Sarkozy, who lost last year's election to Socialist Francois Hollande, faced members of her staff at the hearing earlier on Thursday.
French TV channel BFM quoted Sarkozy's lawyer Thierry Herzog saying the decision was "incoherent and unjust" and he would appeal.
If found guilty, the 57-year-old Sarkozy faces a maximum three-year jail sentence and a hefty fine.