L'Oreal probe returns to haunt Sarkozy
Corruption allegations swirling around France's richest woman, L'Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt, returned Wednesday to haunt President Nicolas Sarkozy, seven months before his re-election battle.
Bettencourt is at the centre of a series of long-standing, overlapping legal inquiries, including one into claims she once showered leading right-wing figures with envelopes stuffed with undeclared campaign donations.
President Sarkozy, who will run for a second term in April, has always strongly denied he or his previous campaigns took illegal L'Oreal cash, but allegations have resurfaced in a new book by two investigative journalists.
In "Sarkozy m'a tuer", Le Monde reporters Gerard Davet and Fabrice Lhomme interview investigative magistrate Isabelle Prevost-Desprez, who was formerly charged with investigating part of the complex scandal.
According to the judge, her team questioned a nurse working at the elderly Bettencourt's mansion who mentioned to a bailiff that she had personally seen Sarkozy accepting a cash-stuffed envelope but then refused to testify.
Sarkozy's office described the new claim as "without basis, mendacious and scandalous" and his ally Prime Minister Francois Fillon attacked the media for repeating what he insisted was "detestable and disgusting rumour."
Prevost-Desprez was herself unavailable for comment.
According to the book, she told the authors that the nurse "told my bailiff after her formal interview, 'I saw money given to Sarkozy but I couldn't say so during my deposition'."
It has long been alleged that Sarkozy's campaign and his centre-right UMP benefited from unusual cash donations during the 2007 election campaign. These have always been fiercely denied, but continue to hang over the party.
Bettencourt, heiress to L'Oreal's immense shampoo and cosmetics empire and a multibillionaire, regularly entertained leading politicians at her house in the wealthy Paris suburb of Neuilly, where Sarkozy served as mayor.
Her accountant, Claire Thibout, has alleged that Bettencourt gave huge sums to the UMP through then party treasurer Eric Woerth. Woerth denies the claims, but has resigned from Sarkozy's government during the investigation.
Again in the new book, Prevost-Desprez is quoted as saying she was struck by how "fearful" were witnesses who made allegations against Sarkozy. She may face disciplinary action for speaking out.
The investigation has been removed from Prevost-Desprez's control and is now being pursued by judges in Bordeaux, so Sarkozy may have hoped he could get on with his campaign for re-election without it hanging over him.
But opposition figures, including some who hope to stand against him next year, seized on the allegations in the book to renew demands for a probe.
Socialist Party leader Martine Aubry called for the judge's reported claims to be subject to an inquiry of their own, and her predecessor and rival for the party nomination Francois Hollande alleged a cover-up.
Hollande claimed that Sarkozy's administration had brought pressure to bear on the judiciary to slow or derail a series of recent investigations that came too close to the president's inner circle for comfort.
Sarkozy's camp fiercely denied the allegations and accused its critics of manipulation and slander.
© 2011 AFP