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[Newsmaker] Sarkozy has far to go for comeback

Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy
Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy
Last week was a good one for former French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

After a key ally held onto the leadership of his party on Monday, Sarkozy himself was all but cleared in a political funding scandal three days later.

Sarkozy was called to testify on accusations of receiving money from Liliane Bettencourt, France’s richest woman and a principal shareholder of the L’Oreal empire.

It was the first time he had been questioned since he lost his presidential immunity in May.

In 2010, tapes were released between Bettencourt and her aides revealing details of secret Swiss bank accounts used to avoid taxes. Shortly afterward her accountant alleged she had handed Sarkozy’s chief fund-raiser, current labor minister Eric Woerth, 150,000 euros ($195,000) in cash.

But in testimony published Sunday by French newspaper Sud-Ouest, Sarkozy claims never to have received, nor asked for a penny from Bettencourt.

The case is not over, but Sarkozy will not be charged at the end of the investigation unless new damning evidence emerges.

It was a boon for the former French leader, who is thought to be eying a return to politics. His chances appeared to be strengthened at the beginning of last week, when one of his allies beat off a strong challenge for the leadership of his party, the Union for a Popular Movement.

But he faces other investigations ― into suspicious spending on polling during his presidency and an apparently underpriced submarine sale to Pakistan ― as well as accusation such as receiving funds from Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi, and later arranging for Gadhafi’s assassination.

The Bettencourt affair, too, may still damage Sarkozy if Woerth fails to clear his name sufficiently.

His party, too, is in crisis. It has been hammered electorally, and its refusal to shift to the left has brought talk of fracture and a resurgence of far right and centrist parties.

The party could be galvanized by a Sarkozy return, which most of its members support in polls. But unless he can shake off all the dirt thrown at him, he may be unable to improve their condition at all.

By Paul Kerry (paulkerry@heraldcorp.com)
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