Fresh claims hit scandal-tainted French minister

14th July 2010, Comments 0 comments

French media published fresh allegations against scandal-hit Labour Minister Eric Woerth on Wednesday, reporting that he sold a state-owned racecourse to an acquaintance at less than market price.

A government official insisted the sale of a racecourse in Compiegne, north of Paris, was done "totally legally," responding to reports in satirical weekly Le Canard Enchaine and Marianne magazine.

But the reports were just the latest in a month-long scandal that has seen Woerth accused of accepting illegal political campaign funding from France's richest woman and ministerial conflicts of interest.

Those allegations, also relating to the time when Woerth was budget minister, sparked calls for his resignation and prompted him to announce yesterday that he would step down as treasurer for the ruling UMP party.

Woerth has denied any wrongdoing and has the backing of President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Le Canard reported in Wednesday's edition that Woerth oversaw the sale of the land, which includes the racecourse and a golf course, to a private company, Societe des Course de Compiegne, which was renting it at the time.

It said the land was sold for 2.5 million euros (3.2 million dollars) -- a fraction of its market value of 20 million euros, according to the weekly -- a week before he left his post as budget minister for the labour ministry.

Le Canard said the president of the company that bought the racecourse, Antoine Gilibert, was a well-known horse-racing fan and local businessman, and an acquaintance of Woerth. Marianne said Gilibert had ties to the UMP.

Reports during the recent scandal revealed that Woerth's wife Florence was a horse-racing fan and opened a stables in the nearby town of Chantilly, where the minister is also mayor.

An official at the finance ministry told AFP the sale was done "totally legally and in the interests of the state."

The official said the sale of small plots of state-owned forest land was legal as long as it would not be used for logging or harm the environment.

The scandal embroiling Woerth in recent weeks included the revelation that his wife worked for the estate of L'Oreal billionaire Liliane Bettencourt, who is being investigated for alleged tax evasion, while he was budget minister and tasked with chasing tax dodgers.

© 2010 AFP

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