French unions pressure scandal-hit minister

3rd September 2010, Comments 0 comments

Trade unions on Friday branded France's labour minister unable to defend the government's cherished pension reform, despite fresh backing from President Nicolas Sarkozy over a damaging scandal.

Months of embarrassing allegations have heaped pressure on Eric Woerth who on Tuesday is to present to parliament plans to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62, a centrepiece of Sarkozy's reform agenda ahead of 2012 elections.

Sarkozy said Woerth was still able to promote the reform, offering some relief for the minister from opposition calls for him to resign over a scandal linked to France's richest woman, L'Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt.

But powerful labour union leaders, whom the government must engage over their fierce opposition to the pensions plan, warned that the scandal was disrupting their efforts to discuss the reform with Woerth.

"How can he manage his personal problems with the Bettencourt affair and the pensions reform at the same time?" said Francois Chereque, leader of the CFDT, a major union, in an interview published Friday in the newspaper Les Echos.

"The situation is prevention discussion of the essentials of the plan. That is a real problem," he said, adding later on Europe 1 radio that he "finds it impossible" to engage with the government while Woerth is in charge.

Other unions, including France's biggest the CGT, agreed.

"Eric Woerth is objectively more occupied, and preoccupied, by things other than the subject which interests us," CGT leader Bernard Thibault told Les Echos.

The unions had kept quiet about the scandal, but broke their silence ahead of the debate on Tuesday, when they plan huge street demonstrations against a reform which they say places an unfair burden on workers.

"The size of the turnout on Tuesday will determine whether the government will budge or not on this reform," Chereque said.

Woerth insisted Friday he is "mobilised 120 percent" ahead of the pensions debate in parliament, and Sarkozy said his minister was still able to present the bill to lawmakers on Tuesday.

The president, asked during a visit to a factory in central France whether he still supported Woerth, a day after the months-long conflict of interest scandal re-erupted around the minister, replied simply: "Yes."

Woerth staunchly denies any wrongdoing in the Bettencourt affair, in which authorities have launched several investigations into the affairs of the 87-year-old heiress of the L'Oreal cosmetics empire.

The most serious allegation is of illegal funding to Sarkozy's UMP party.

On Thursday, Woerth plunged deeper into scandal when he admitted endorsing his wife's employer for a state honour, after denying for weeks that he had intervened. He denies any wrongdoing in the case.

Woerth told reporters he sent a letter in 2007 to then-interior minister Sarkozy, recommending that Patrick de Maistre, who later employed Woerth's wife, be awarded the prestigious Legion d'Honneur decoration.

Maistre runs a company that manages part of Bettencourt's fortune, raising accusations of a conflict of interest.

On Thursday, Prime Minister Francois Fillon appeared to temper his backing for Woerth, declining to respond to the latest twist when questioned by reporters, but in a statement later said Woerth had his "entire confidence".

© 2010 AFP

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