Sarkozy linked to L'Oreal cash scandal
President Nicolas Sarkozy was directly linked for the first time to L'Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt's murky finances Tuesday, with claims his presidential campaign received 150,000 euros in cash.
An aide to Sarkozy dismissed the latest reports as "totally false", as the French government was drawn deeper into a series of scandals that had already embroiled his labour minister and seen two other ministers resign.
An accountant, identified by the investigative website Mediapart as Claire T., said Eric Woerth, a Sarkozy ally and treasurer of his UMP party, received the donation in March 2007, ahead of Sarkozy's election victory in May.
The accountant's lawyer, Antoine Gillot, confirmed to AFP his client had told police investigating Bettencourt's finances about the alleged payment.
Woerth has since served as Sarkozy's budget minister and is now his labour minister, and faces calls for his resignation after he was accused of conflict of interest in his relations with Bettencourt, France's richest woman.
The accountant also claimed that Sarkozy himself was a regular visitor at the Bettencourt family home, where he too allegedly received envelopes of cash when he was mayor of the town of Neuilly, west of Paris.
The allegations hit Sarkozy at a crucial time as he struggles with plunging popularity and difficult economic reforms while eyeing re-election in 2012.
His approval ratings are at an all time low of 26 percent, and a poll conducted by Vivavoice and the daily Liberation just before the ministers' resignations found 64 percent of voters think the political class corrupt.
If the allegations are confirmed, the party payments would be illegal, surpassing the limit of 7,500 euros permitted for political donations to parties and 4,600 euros to individuals.
Mediapart quoted Claire T. as saying she prepared envelopes of cash taking care not to leave any written record of the payments to politicians.
Gillot told AFP that the accountant had been asked for 150,000 by Bettencourt's financial adviser Patrice de Maistre, who told her he would give it "discreetly" to Woerth at a dinner.
The woman, who worked for the Bettencourts for 12 years until 2008, said she believed Sarkozy also received envelopes in person while he was mayor between 1983 and 2002.
"Everyone in the house knew that Sarkozy went to see the Bettencourts to collect money," Mediapart quoted her as saying.
The leader of the UMP in parliament, Jean-Francois Cope, said it was time for Sarkozy to "speak to the French people" about the scandal. Le Figaro newspaper reported that Sarkozy is considering making a televised response.
The scandal involving Bettencourt, the heiress to the L'Oreal shampoo and cosmetics empire, started with secret tapes recorded by the 87-year-old billionaire's butler and leaked to media last month.
Woerth's name came up in the secretly taped conversations, in which the cosmetics billionaire allegedly plotted to evade taxes on her fortune.
He was further tainted when it emerged his wife Florence had worked for Bettencourt's estate at the time, helping manage the shampoo billionaire's private fortune, some of which was held in foreign tax havens.
Woerth is a key figure in Sarkozy's plans to get government reforms back on track after the financial crisis and help him prepare for the 2012 election.
Next week, Woerth is to present a proposed law to reform France's pension rules and push back the legal retirement age, the centrepiece of Sarkozy's legislative programme.
Pressured by the scandal, Sarkozy sacrificed international development secretary Alain Joyandet and Christian Blanc, a minister for the Paris region, who both resigned at the weekend after drawing fire over excessive expenses.
© 2010 AFP