BORDEAUX, France: Former president Nicolas Sarkozy has been charged with taking financial advantage of France's richest woman, as part of a probe into illegal party funding that could shatter his hopes of a political comeback.
His lawyers said they would appeal against the decision to formally investigate Sarkozy over allegations he took advantage of elderly L'Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt when she was weakened by poor health.
He was unexpectedly summoned on Thursday to the Bordeaux offices of Jean-Michel Gentil, the judge in charge of the case, for face-to-face encounters with at least four former members of Bettencourt's staff.
The surprise confrontation came over claims he had accepted envelopes stuffed with cash from the world's richest woman to fund his 2007 election campaign.
Gentil was seeking to establish how many times Sarkozy had visited Bettencourt during his successful campaign.
Sarkozy, 58, has always maintained that he visited Bettencourt's residence only once during the campaign, to meet her late husband. Members of the multi-billionaire's staff have, however, contradicted his version of events.
Sarkozy's lawyer Thierry Herzog lambasted the decision to pursue his client as "legally incoherent and unfair". He said he would immediately initiate proceedings to have the charges dropped.
Back in November, Gentil and two other examining magistrates spent 12 hours questioning Sarkozy. They decided not to formally charge him then but to continue investigating the allegations against him.
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