French judges have questioned ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy about accusations his 2007 election campaign was financed with funds secured illegally from France's richest woman.
In a case that could wreck the 57-year-old's hopes of a political comeback, Sarkozy is suspected of taking financial advantage of elderly L'Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt when she was too frail to fully understand what she was doing.
"Being accused of corruption is one thing, but being accused of taking advantage of a then 80-year-old woman is something which for the French people will be far less acceptable"
- Franck Guillory,
French journalist and commentator
Examining magistrate Jean-Michel Gentil and two other judges spent most of the day quizzing Sarkozy, who flew into Bordeaux on a private plane on Thursday, about how he obtained funding from Bettencourt.
Sarkozy's appearance in court comes with his right-wing UMP party in turmoil after the battle to replace him led to both contenders claiming victory.
Judicial sources have told the AFP news agency Sarkozy could be formally indicted on a charge of taking advantage of someone in a position of weakness, although the magistrate also has the option of interrogating him as a witness under caution.
Franck Guillory, a journalist and commentator, told Al Jazeera that France "is moving to a whole new territory where politicians are being treated as ordinary citizens instead of monarchs".
"Being accused of corruption is one thing, but being accused of taking advantage of a then 80-year-old woman is something which for the French people will be far less acceptable," he said.
'Illegal campaign financing'
Bettencourt is now 90 and has been in poor health since 2006.
The allegation against Sarkozy is two-fold: that the money obtained from her took his campaign financing over legal limits and that it had been secured without her full knowledge or consent.
|Investigators suspect some or all of the funds could have found its way to Sarkozy or his party [AFP]
This latter claim was made by Bettencourt's former accountant, Claire Thibout, in 2010.
She told police that she had handed envelopes stuffed with cash to Bettencourt's right-hand man, Patrice de Maistre, on the understanding it was to be passed on to Sarkozy's campaign treasurer, Eric Woerth.
Maistre withdrew a total of $5.2m in cash from Bettencourt's Swiss bank account in seven instalments between 2007 and 2009.
Investigators suspect some or all of the money could have found its way to Sarkozy or his party.
Claude Gueant, a close ally of Sarkozy who served as his interior minister, said the courts needed to show why his questioning was necessary.
"I would like to be absolutely convinced that this hearing is essential," he told RTL radio on Thursday, insisting there was no chance of illegal campaign financing because of "extremely rigorous" controls.
Sarkozy, who lost his immunity from prosecution after losing the presidential election to Socialist Francois Hollande in May, is facing a slew of legal inquiries.
As well as the Bettencourt case, he is facing probes into contracts for opinion polls, an illegal police investigation into journalists and alleged kickbacks on a Pakistani arms deal used to finance the right in 1995, when Sarkozy was budget minister.
|Chirac faced charges of embezzlement, breach of trust relating to his time as mayor of Paris in early 1990s [AFP]
Sarkozy has not ruled out another attempt at the presidency in 2017.
Efforts to find a replacement for him within his party have descended into chaos, with ex-prime minister Francois Fillon contesting the result of a bitter leadership election won by party secretary general Jean-Francois Cope.
Sarkozy has denied any wrongdoing in the raft of probes, but the conviction last year of his predecessor Jacques Chirac has shown that French courts are willing to go after former leaders.
Chirac was called before investigators less than two months after he left office in 2007, on charges of breach of trust and embezzlement between 1990 and 1995, when as mayor of Paris he employed ghost workers.
He was found guilty and given a suspended jail sentence in December, becoming the first post-war French head of state to be convicted of a crime.
One of Sarkozy's allies was meanwhile convicted on Thursday of making threats to a lawyer for the families of 11 French engineers killed in a 2002 bombing in Karachi at the centre of the Pakistani kickback scandal.
Former minister Brice Hortefeux was ordered to pay a $6,400 fine for telling a newspaper the lawyer "should be smashed up".