Scandal-hit Sarkozy schedules French TV appearance

9th July 2010, Comments 0 comments

French President Nicolas Sarkozy decided Friday to schedule a special prime-time television appearance as he fought back allegations of illegal campaign donations from the country's richest woman.

Sarkozy will appear in a one-hour prime-time evening programme on Monday to discuss "all of the current affairs issues," said a statement from public broadcaster France 2.

The president has been hit by allegations that his campaign fundraiser in 2007 and now Labour Minister Eric Woerth took envelopes of cash from 87-year-old L'Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt.

Prosecutors have opened a preliminary investigation after Bettencourt's accountant told police that she was ordered to put together 150,000 euros (190,000 dollars) to hand over to Woerth in March 2007.

Woerth has strenuously denied taking any illegal donations and Sarkozy has dismissed the claims as a smear campaign, but the scandal has sparked calls for the high-profile minister to resign.

Sarkozy has faced pressure to fight back in the scandal that has plunged his government into crisis, just days before key legislation on pension reform is to go before cabinet.

Police on Friday searched the home and office of a Bettencourt's financial adviser, Patrick de Maistre, as part of the probe into the alleged illegal donations.

On Thursday, they questioned for three hours Bettencourt's former accountant to verify her allegations of cash gifts to the Sarkozy campaign.

The scandal is the latest blow to Sarkozy, whose approval ratings are at an all-time low and who is battling to save Woerth over conflict of interest allegations linked to the 87-year-old billionaire.

The mushrooming affair started with a report from the Mediapart website on conversations secretly recorded by Bettencourt's butler which revealed that the L'Oreal heiress plotted to evade taxes.

Woerth's wife worked as a wealth manager for Bettencourt's 17-billion-euro fortune while he was budget minister tasked with fighting tax dodgers.

In another twist, prosecutors on Friday opened an investigation into tax evasion targeting Bettencourt, based on the butler's tapes.

The architect of the pension reforms, Woerth is to present a bill to cabinet on Tuesday that will raise the legal retirement age, pushing through a centrepiece of Sarkozy's agenda as he heads for a re-election fight in 2012.

Trade unions oppose the bill and outrage over the alleged links between the right-wing government and the super-rich is undermining the government's push for belt-tightening measures.

Bettencourt's accountant, Claire Thibout, told police on Thursday that the financial adviser had asked her "before the presidential election to go pick up 150,000 euros at the bank" according to a transcript obtained by Mediapart.

"When I asked him what the money was for, he said that he had a dinner planned with Mr Woerth to give it to him," she said.

But Thibout denied saying that Sarkozy was a regular visitor at Bettencourt's villa in the chic Paris suburb of Neuilly when he was mayor of the town and that he often received cash envelopes.

"I never said that envelopes were regularly passsed on to Mr Sarkozy," she said.

The Elysee presidential palace pounced on that partial retraction as proof that her account was dodgy.

"The truth has been restored," said Sarkozy's chief of staff Claude Gueant.

For his part, De Maistre denied any knowledge of the cash donation and has threatened to sue Thibout.

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.

© 2010 AFP

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