Pressure rises on scandal-hit French minister

2nd September 2010, Comments 0 comments

French Labour Minister Eric Woerth plunged deeper into scandal Thursday when he admitted endorsing his wife's employer for a state honour, after denying for weeks that he had intervened.

Woerth staunchly denies any wrongdoing but his position looked increasingly fragile when Prime Minister Francois Fillon appeared to fail to back him, five days before parliament debates a sensitive pensions bill.

"The pensions reform will be handled by the minister in charge, who will go to defend it before the parliament," said Fillon, without naming Woerth, when asked whether he was still backing the work and pensions minister.

President Nicolas Sarkozy has publicly defended Woerth, but a government source said Sarkozy made no comments in his support at Wednesday's cabinet.

Fillon, who had defended Woerth at every stage of the months-long scandal, declined to respond to the latest twist -- Woerth's admission Thursday regarding the state honour to his wife's ex-employer, Patrick de Maistre.

Political opponents have accused Woerth of lying about the affair. Socialist Party lawmaker Claude Bartolone called for him to resign.

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

"I wrote it when I was merely a member of parliament" in 2007, a visibly annoyed Woerth told reporters, referring to the incriminating letter, which was leaked to French media.

The publication of the letter came a week before Woerth is due to present the pensions bill, the centrepiece of Sarkozy's reform agenda in the run-up to his re-election battle in 2012.

Woerth had previously denied actively intervening to support Maistre, and on Thursday he reiterated his denial of wrongdoing in the case, insisting: "I never lied about anything to anybody."

Maistre is the manager of the vast fortune of Liliane Bettencourt, the 87-year-old heiress of the L'Oreal cosmetics empire who is at the centre of several investigations of allegations implicating Woerth.

Woerth on Thursday pointed out that the letter was written before Sarkozy's 2007 presidential election victory. Once in office, Sarkozy appointed Woerth budget minister and later moved him to the labour ministry.

"It was just an ordinary thing," Woerth told reporters, saying he had written the letter in his role as a lawmaker. "I never said it did not exist, what is this all about?"

Among the allegations linked to Bettencourt are claims of plans to evade taxes on her estimated 17-billion-euro (22-billion-dollar) fortune.

These spawned further allegations of a conflict of interest since Woerth's wife worked under Maistre for a company managing Bettencourt's estate while he was budget minister in charge of policing tax evasion.

Woerth was also Sarkozy's presidential campaign fundraiser as treasurer for the right-wing UMP party. That role raised further accusations of a conflict of interest, leading him to step down from the post.

In another twist in the saga, a news report said Thursday that personal diaries seized by police during their probes showed Bettencourt told a photographer friend she gave money to Sarkozy for his 2007 election campaign.

Bettencourt's former accountant has said Maistre had her withdraw 150,000 euros from the heiress's bank account to help fund Sarkozy's campaign in 2007.

France's limit for donations to political parties is set at 7,500 euros.

Maistre has denied the accountant's claim and Sarkozy has denied any wrongdoing in his contacts with Bettencourt.

© 2010 AFP

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