A French court has dropped charges that alleged Nicolas Sarkozy took advantage of the mental fragility of France's richest woman to obtain illegal funding for his 2007 election campaign, potentially paving the way for a political return.
Sarkozy, who was under investigation for allegedly accepting cash from L'Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt, 90, was told there was no case to answer and he would not be sent for trial.
The unexpected decision removed a major obstacle for the right-wing politician - who was defeated after one term in office by Socialist Francois Hollande in May 2012 - to stand again for president in 2017.
Judges had been conducting a criminal investigation into Sarkozy's links with Bettencourt and whether he abused her weakness by asking for and accepting money for his successful 2007 election campaign, when she was allegedly too frail to know what she was doing.
Sarkozy maintained the accusations were unfounded, while supporters said the allegations were unfair and politically motivated.
On a visit to the Grand Mosque in Paris yesterday, Sarkozy declined to comment on the trial threat being lifted, but his allies were keen to play up the significance of yesterday's unexpected twist in the legal saga.
"It means his political calendar is no longer a hostage to the judicial calendar," said Rachida Dati, the former justice minister who was a Sarkozy protégé.
The decision to drop the charges came only two weeks after a court ruled that an investigation could proceed. However, the public prosecutor in Bordeaux, where the inquiry was being held, said the case against Sarkozy stood no chance of success and had threatened to appeal against any decision to send the former president to trial.
Charges were maintained against former minister Eric Woerth, who was Sarkozy's treasurer in the 2007 campaign; Bettencourt's former companion, the society photographer Francois-Marie Banier; her lawyer Pascal Wilhelm; her financial adviser Patrice de Maistre, and six others. Their case is expected to go to court next year.
In the run-up to the May 2012 election campaign, Sarkozy said if he lost, France would "never hear of me again". He has remained mostly out of sight since his defeat, but recently, while stopping short of any explicit pledge of a comeback, he and his entourage have dropped heavy hints that he may return to the frontline of French politics to "save" the country.
Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse