Sarkozy steps out in Belgium, vows no Depardieu

27th March 2013, Comments 0 comments

French president Nicolas Sarkozy made a rare public appearance on Wednesday in Belgium, where he joked he was not about to follow in movie star Gerard Depardieu's tax-exile footsteps.

Charged last week with preying on ageing l'Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt, France's richest woman, to raise 2007 campaign election funds when she was weakened by ill health, Sarkozy made only the most oblique of allusions to the probe that risks undermining any hopes of a political comeback.

With Brussels famous for its grey weather, Sarkozy said under searing blue skies outside that it made no sense to "moan about the rain," quipping that "the sun always ends up shining."

Investigators suspect up to four million euros ($5.2 million) of Bettencourt's cash made its way into the coffers of Sarkozy's UMP party. Bettencourt is now 90 and has been incapacitated since 2006, according to doctors.

Sarkozy was in Belgium to hand the Legion d'Honneur, France's highest tribute, to his friend of 20 years, Belgian Foreign Minister Didier Reynders, and also said playfully: "I'm not planning to settle, I'm just passing through... I will be gone again this evening."

If convicted, Sarkozy could face up to three years in jail, a fine of 375,000 euros ($484,000), and a five-year ban from public office.

In an interview with French tabloid Le Parisien on Wednesday, Sarkozy's model-turned-singer wife Carla Bruni said the charges were "painful for the family," after Sarkozy took to Facebook on Monday to insist the charges against him were "unfair and unfounded."

Before losing in last May's presidential polls to Socialist Francois Hollande, Sarkozy was an energetic driver of the eurozone-wide response to the debt crisis, but days after the controversial Cyprus bailout deal, he was careful not to pass definitive judgment on decisions taken by his successors.

"I'm not criticising anyone -- that serves no purpose," he said.

Sarkozy was due to hold private meetings with European Union president Herman Van Rompuy and European Commission head Jose Manuel Barroso later in the day.

© 2013 AFP

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