Sarkozy allies slam 'fascist' media attacks

7th July 2010, Comments 0 comments

President Nicolas Sarkozy's allies accused the media of "fascist" tactics Wednesday as they battled claims they had received illegal campaign donations from France's richest woman.

Sarkozy's camp dismissed allegations that his UMP party's treasurer Eric Woerth -- now labour minister -- received 150,000 euros (188,000 dollars) in cash from Liliane Bettencourt, heiress of the L'Oreal cosmetics empire.

Woerth went on the evening news Tuesday to denounce "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 said Wednesday, in an apparent reference to fascist political currents in pre-war France.

"It's just one person's word against another," he told France Info radio.

Mediapart quoted Bettencourt's former accountant as saying that the shampoo billionaire's financial manager gave Woerth 150,000 euros and that Sarkozy himself also received envelopes of cash from the family.

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

"When certain media, notably a site that uses fascist methods based on recordings that are totally illegal ... what kind of world are we living in?" declared Xavier Bertrand, the leader of the UMP.

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

Woerth complained of how he had been treated in the scandal.

"Every day I hear torrents of insults ... I have nothing to reproach myself for," he told the TF1 television channel on Tuesday, refusing to bow to opposition Socialist calls that he resign.

But politicians and commentators from within Sarkozy's own right-wing camp have urged the president himself to set the record straight.

"If Nicolas Sarkozy wants to avoid the crisis of confidence that is shaping up, he must speak out and defend himself from the attacks," wrote editorialist Paul-Henri du Limbert in the right-wing daily Le Figaro.

"It is urgent that the president speak out himself," said Francois Bayrou, leader of the centre-right Modem party, describing Sarkozy's situation as a "moral and political crisis," in comments on RTL radio.

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

Sarkozy reacted indirectly on Tuesday, complaining of attempts to smear him, but neither he nor Woerth have 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 the form of cash.

"I would love it so much if the country could excite itself over the big problems ... rather than to get wrapped up in the first horror, a slander with only one goal, to smear with no basis in reality," Sarkozy said.

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.

On Tuesday, an opinion poll by the Ifop agency found 69 percent of French voters would like to see an immediate cabinet reshuffle.

© 2010 AFP

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