Probe targets Sarkozy link to heiress cash

7th July 2010, Comments 0 comments

Prosecutors investigated claims Wednesday that President Nicolas Sarkozy's campaign got illegal cash from France's richest woman, as the scandal spawned lawsuits and a fierce fightback by his allies.

The prosecutor's office in the Paris suburb of Nanterre asked the fraud squad to probe allegations made by a former accountant for Liliane Bettencourt, heiress of the L'Oreal cosmetics empire.

Sarkozy's allies hit back, accusing the media of "fascist" tactics and dismissing as a smear campaign the scandal which has plunged him into the biggest crisis of his presidency.

Labour Minister Eric Woerth has decided to make an official complaint over the allegations, counter-alleging that he was the victim of "malicious falsehood" by persons unknown, his office said on Wednesday.

"He denounces the false accusations to which he has been subjected," the Labour Ministry said in a statement. A French magistrate will study his complaint and decide whether criminal charges can be brought.

Prime Minister Francois Fillon rebuffed mounting calls for a ministerial reshuffle to clear the air, vowing: "We will not give in to this upheaval."

The accountant, Claire Thibout, told police that in early 2007 Bettencourt's financial advisor gave 150,000 euros (188,000 dollars) in cash to Woerth, the treasurer for Sarkozy's campaign and now also labour minister.

Woerth has blamed what he called "a political plot orchestrated by the Socialist Party", while others slammed the media, notably the investigative news website Mediapart which broke the story.

"This famous site's behaviour recalls that of certain newspapers in the 1930s," Industry Minister Christian Estrosi told France Info radio, in an apparent reference to fascist political currents in pre-war France.

Mediapart had quoted Thibout as saying that Sarkozy had also received envelopes of cash from the family.

They were the first allegations to link Sarkozy directly with a scandal over Woerth's ties to the billionairess. The affair started with a Mediapart report based on conversations secretly recorded by her butler.

Families Minister Nadine Morano reiterated the charge by other Sarkozy supporters that Mediapart had used "fascist methods" and said she saw "politico-media-Trotskyist collusion" behind the press coverage.

The journalist who founded the site, Edwy Plenel, told France Info he would sue Sarkozy's allies for defamation for the "fascist" comment and insisted Mediapart's reporting was in the public interest.

"Eric Woerth has been put in the worst situation by his friends because he's being used to shield the president," Plenel added.

An aide to Sarkozy however told AFP the investigation would be a "chance to see off the slanders against Eric Woerth."

Woerth has been accused of a conflict of interest since the revelation that his wife worked for a firm managing Bettencourt's 17-billion-euro (21 billion dollar) fortune while as budget minister he was fighting tax evasion.

He insists he did nothing wrong, but various politicians and commentators from within Sarkozy's own right-wing camp have urged the president to act.

Aides say Sarkozy is considering making a televised address, as pressure rises before Woerth presents a sensitive pensions bill, centrepiece of the president's reform drive, on July 13.

Sarkozy on Tuesday described the affair as "a slander with only one goal, to smear with no basis in reality."

But neither he nor Woerth has yet confirmed whether their party took money -- even a legal campaign donation -- from the billionaire.

In France, private donors are forbidden from giving more than 7,500 euros per year to a political party and there are strict limits on how much can be raised in cash.

Sarkozy's approval ratings are at their lowest levels since his 2007 election and he faces an uphill battle to get reforms back on track before seeking reelection in 2012.

© 2010 AFP

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