Sarkozy steps out in Belgium, vows no Depardieu

Sarkozy steps out in Belgium, vows no Depardieu

BRUSSELS - Agence France-Presse
Sarkozy steps out in Belgium, vows no Depardieu

Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy awards Belgian Foreign Minister Didier Reynders (R) with the French Legion d'Honneur during a ceremony at the Egmont Palace in Brussels March 27. REUTERS photo

Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy made a rare public appearance on March 27 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, the world'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 used the occasion to make a playful reference to Depardieu's reaction to punitive tax laws introduced under Socialist successor Francois Hollande when he said: "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 March 27, 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, Sarkozy was an energetic driver of the eurozone-wide response to the debt crisis, but days after the controversial Cyprus bailout deal, he said that eurozone leaders would do well to remember decisions he was party to at the onset of the 2008 global financial crisis, when lenders were bailed out by national governments but depositors were protected at all cost.

"We said to those who placed their savings in the banks that not one of them would lose out," Sarkozy said in a speech with no scope for reporters' questions afterwards. "And we didn't see queues building up in front of bank branches," he said cuttingly.

"I'd like to see us keep this in mind when we discuss certain initiatives now." 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.