Sarkozy judge mistook hostage for billionaire backer -lawyer

PARIS Fri Nov 23, 2012 10:17am EST

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PARIS Nov 23 (Reuters) - A judge investigating Nicolas Sarkozy's campaign funding mistook a Colombian hostage for a billionaire backer of France's right-wing party when he queried a meeting in the ex-president's diary, a lawyer for Sarkozy said.

Sarkozy, who lost power in May, was questioned for 12 hours on Thursday by a judge who is trying to establish whether his election win in 2007 was aided by illegal funding from France's richest woman, 90-year-old Liliane Bettencourt.

Rather than Bettencourt, daughter of the founder of the L'Oreal cosmetics empire, the diary entry referred to Franco-Colombian Ingrid Betancourt, who was held hostage in Colombia for six years and freed in 2007.

"In the diary box, believe it or not, it's indicated that Nicolas Sarkozy received the Betancourt family," lawyer Thierry Herzog told French radio.

Judge Jean-Michel Gentil decided after the questioning not to open a full-blown inquiry into Sarkozy, who has bowed out of politics but is considered a possible candidate for the conservative camp in the next presidential contest in 2017.

Herzog said that Sarkozy, who categorically denies any wrongdoing, was relieved.

Gentil and two other judges who questioned Sarkozy classified him as a witness, a status in French judicial procedure that signals he is not liable to face trial.

Initial suspicions were fuelled three years ago when a woman who worked as an accountant for the mentally frail Bettencourt, now aged 90, alleged that a large cash withdrawal was earmarked for Sarkozy's campaign.

Liliane Bettencourt's family has long had close connections with the UMP party of Sarkozy, who lost presidential immunity when he left office.

"For him and for me, this affair is an affair that no longer exists," said Herzog. (Reporting By Brian Love; Editing by Myra MacDonald)

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