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French judges seize Tapie assets in arbitration case

PARIS (Reuters) - Judges have ordered a Mediterranean villa and other assets to be seized from a French businessman at the center of a fraud investigation that could weigh on ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy's hopes of a comeback, legal sources said.

Bailiffs will confiscate assets worth tens of millions of euros belonging to tycoon Bernard Tapie, in a move that suggests investigating judges believe they have evidence of fraud in a 403 million euro ($515.27 million) arbitration payment he received in 2008 under Sarkozy's presidency.

Finance Minister Pierre Moscovici said the Socialist government, which took power after Sarkozy's May 2012 election defeat, had asked for "protective measures" to be taken in case reparations needed to be made to the state.

Under formal investigation since June 28 on suspicion that the arbitration payment may have been rigged, Tapie has denied any wrongdoing. His lawyer could not be reached on Wednesday.

The center-right Sarkozy has immunity for life for any acts carried out while he was president. However he could come under scrutiny if it emerged that the arbitration settlement was being planned earlier on, when he was finance minister.

The Tapie affair is one of a string of legal headaches pressing on Sarkozy as he mulls a possible political comeback to reunite his fractured UMP conservative party ahead of the 2017 presidential election.

It has embroiled several of his former cabinet members including International Monetary Fund head Christine Lagarde, his finance minister in 2008.

Tapie - who supported Sarkozy in the last two elections - was awarded the money to settle a dispute with now defunct state-owned bank Credit Lyonnais over a 1993 share sale.

The 70-year-old was awarded 285 million euros, rising to 403 million with interest and before taxes, to settle his claim that the bank defrauded him by buying his stake in sports firm Adidas for 315.5 million euros only to sell it a year on for 701 million.

(Reporting by Gerard Bon and Nicolas Vinocur; Writing by Catherine Bremer; editing by Ralph Boulton)

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