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Politics

Sarkozy interrogated over suspect election funds

Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy has been questioned by magistrates over allegations of illegal election donations. The investigation could jeopardize his chances of a rumored return to politics.

Nicolas Sarkozy was quizzed by magistrates on Thursday over allegations that he received illegal campaign funds from France's richest woman when he ran for president in 2007.

It was the first time he has been questioned about the funds since he lost the presidency - and with it, legal immunity - in May.

The closed-door questioning in the southwestern city of Bordeaux was guarded by hundreds of police officers.

Manipulation allegations

Sarkozy is alleged to have received cash-stuffed envelopes from billionaire L'Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt, 90, either directly or through intermediaries.

The donations allegedly amounted to 150,000 euros ($193,000), a sum that far exceeds the 4,600-euro legal limit on individual campaign contributions.

French media said Sarkozy could be charged with taking advantage of Bettencourt's mentally frail state. She was placed under legal guardianship last year after her daughter accused her advisers of manipulating her for personal gain.

French police raided Sarkozy's Paris residence and offices in July as part of the inquiry into financial relations with Bettencourt.

Leadership infighting

Sarkozy denies any wrongdoing, but if he is put under full-blown judicial investigation following the first question session, it could damage his chances of running in the 2017 presidential election, as is his rumored intention.

A recent poll showed that 52 percent of his Union for a Popular Movement party supporters would like to see him make such a comeback. This trend is likely to be reinforced in light of the current leadership row between the two men fighting to succeed him, Francois Fillon and Jean-Francois Cope.

Fillon has now dropped his leadership claim after losing an election against Cope, but still insists he is the victor. The row has aggravated ideological divisions within the center-right party.

A possible return to politics by Sarkozy could also be hampered if he fails to clear his name in other controversial affairs that clouded his presidency. One centers on a submarine sale to Pakistan and another on lavish spending on opinion polls by his office while he was president.

tj/dr (Reuters, dpa)