Scandal-hit French minister admits role in state honour

2nd September 2010, Comments 0 comments

France's Labour Minister Eric Woerth, after weeks of denying he intervened to get a state honour for his wife's employer, acknowledged Thursday he wrote a letter to Nicolas Sarkozy backing the award.

"You have seen the letter, I wrote it when I was merely a member of parliament" in 2007, he told reporters, referring to a letter published by French media that increased pressure on him in a conflict-of-interest scandal.

In the letter Woerth recommended to president Sarkozy, who was then interior minister, that Patrick de Maistre, who later employed Woerth's wife, be awarded France's highest honour, the Legion d'Honneur.

The publication of the letter came a week before Woerth is due to present to parliament a sensitive pensions bill, the centrepiece of Sarkozy's reform agenda.

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

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

Woerth on Thursday pointed out that the letter was written before the 2007 presidential election victory of Sarkozy, who later appointed Woerth budget minister and then moved him to the labour ministry.

"It was just an ordinary thing," Woerth told reporters, referring to his writing the letter as a parliamentarian. "I never said it did not exist."

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.

© 2010 AFP

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