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Sovereign Wealth Suitors Woo Sarkozy

LIONEL BONAVENTURE | AFP | Getty Images

Nicolas Sarkozy is being wooed by sovereign wealth funds including Qatar's who are ready to back him to start a private equity fund.

Qatar's sovereign wealth fund and other investors have offered to commit as much as €500m in total to a fund run by the former French president, people familiar with the matter said. Mr Sarkozy has sought advice from close advisers on the plan.

However, he has put it on hold in recent weeks because he sees an opportunity to return to politics following the rapid decline in the polls of President Francois Hollande, who defeated him in May, two people familiar with Mr Sarkozy's thinking said. "The Qataris are taking an option on the next president of France," a third person with knowledge of the venture said.

Some in Mr Sarkozy's close circle of business advisers and friends have urged him not to start a business that could hurt his political chances. Getting involved in a private equity venture could make a comeback difficult because of widespread public bias against finance in France. .

Mr Hollande was elected last May after railing against finance on the campaign trail and pledging to tax those earning more than €1m a year at a 75 per cent marginal rate. "France isn't the United States or the UK," someone in his inner circle said.

But Mr Sarkozy, whose half-brother Olivier is a partner at the Washington-based buyout-group Carlyle, is keeping the private equity plan as an option he could revive if he decides to abandon politics once and for all, his advisers said. In particular, his wife, the top model-turned-pop-singer Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, is resisting a political comeback, they said.

Mr Sarkozy has consulted business friends for advice on how and where to invest the fund. One idea was to invest in companies in emerging markets such as Brazil, and another was to invest in Spain and Morocco.

Mr Sarkozy would not actually invest the funds himself. Instead, he would take a non-executive role, taking care of investors and opening doors and originating transactions through his political and business connections. The team would be based in Paris, the people said.

"Mr Sarkozy receives business proposals regularly and he hasn't said yes to any yet," a spokeswoman for Mr Sarkozy said, declining to elaborate further. A spokesman at Finsbury, representing Qatar Holding, a unit of the sovereign wealth fund, said it declined to comment. An official for the sovereign wealth fund was not available to comment.

Talk of a private equity fund run by Mr Sarkozy first appeared on the French website Mediapart in January. The report included speculation he would move to London, which people close to him have denied.

For the time being, Mr Sarkozy is looking ahead to the municipal elections in March next year. Then he believes both the Socialist party led by Mr Hollande and his own UMP centre-right party could lose ground to the benefit of the more radical parties of Marine Le Pen on the right and Jean-Luc Melenchon on the left. The former French president calculates he could then appear as a man of reconciliation ahead of 2017 presidential elections, his close supporters said.

This week in the weekly magazine Valeurs Actuelles Mr Sarkozy hinted at a possible return to the political frontline.

If the country were to be caught between "the extremism of the left and of the right.....I could not continue to say to myself, 'I'm happy, I take my daughter to school and I go to conferences around the world,'" he was quoted as saying in the magazine. "At that moment I would effectively be obliged to step forward. Not by desire. But by duty. Only because it's about France."

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