Sarkozy questioned over Bettencourt donations

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Media captionMr Sarkozy was questioned by a judge for 12 hours

Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy has been questioned over claims his 2007 election campaign received illegal donations from France's richest woman.

After a 12-hour grilling by a judge Mr Sarkozy was declared a material witness - which means he is a suspect but has not been formally charged.

Mr Sarkozy is suspected of accepting thousands of euros from L'Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt.

The 57-year-old, who in office had immunity, denies wrongdoing.

Police raided his home and offices in July as part of an inquiry ordered by examining magistrate, Jean-Michel Gentil.

Although he has stepped back from frontline politics since his defeat by Socialist challenger Francois Hollande, Mr Sarkozy is rumoured still to harbour ambitions of running for re-election in 2017, the BBC's Christian Fraser in Paris reports.

The outcome of the investigation could determine whether the former president will make his widely anticipated return, our correspondent says.

Cash envelopes

Mr Sarkozy was given the status of a material witness at the end of the gruelling session with the judge in the south-western city of Bordeaux.

Image caption The allegations relate to the financing of Mr Sarkozy's 2007 election campaign

The decision means he is still a suspect, but there is not yet the prima facie evidence to bring a formal charge, our correspondent says.

The judge can call him back to answer further questions, and the former president is not yet in the clear, our correspondent says.

This was a better outcome than Mr Sarkozy's supporters might have feared, as there had been speculation he could be placed under formal investigation, our correspondent adds.

Mr Sarkozy avoided the media when he arrived at the heavily guarded courthouse in Bordeaux on Thursday morning.

It is alleged that staff acting for Mrs Bettencourt gave 150,000 euros (£120,600) in cash to Mr Sarkozy's aides during his successful 2007 campaign to become president.

Individual campaign contributions in France are limited to 4,600 euros.

Mrs Bettencourt's former accountant, Claire Thibout, alleges Mr Sarkozy's campaign treasurer at the time - Eric Woerth, who later became budget minister - collected the cash in person.

She also revealed in a leaked police interview that Mr Sarkozy, while mayor of Neuilly from 1983 to 2002, paid "regular" visits to the Bettencourt house, our correspondent says.

The former president has dismissed as mere gossip claims that he took envelopes stuffed with cash.

Mr Woerth, who was forced to resign as UMP party treasurer in July as a result of the scandal, is already under formal investigation over the 150,000 euro payment allegations.

The allegations surrounding Mr Sarkozy and Mr Woerth first surfaced in connection with a trial over the estimated 17bn euro fortune of Mrs Bettencourt, 87.

Mr Woerth denies any wrongdoing, as does Mrs Bettencourt.

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