Probe targets Sarkozy link to French heiress cash

7th July 2010, Comments 0 comments

Prosecutors investigated Wednesday claims that President Nicolas Sarkozy's campaign received illegal cash from France's richest woman, as the scandal spawned lawsuits and a fightback by his allies.

The prosecutor's office in the Paris suburb of Nanterre asked the fraud squad to look into the allegations by a former accountant for Liliane Bettencourt, heiress of the L'Oreal cosmetics empire.

Sarkozy's allies hit back, accusing the media of "fascist" tactics and dismissing as a smear campaign a scandal that has plunged him into the biggest crisis of his presidency.

Accountant Claire Thibout has told police that in early 2007 Bettencourt's financial advisor gave 150,000 euros (188,000 dollars) in cash to Eric Woerth, who was the treasurer for Sarkozy's campaign and is now labour minister.

Woerth decided to make an official complaint over the allegations, saying he was the victim of "malicious falsehood" by persons unknown, his office said Wednesday.

"He denounces the false accusations to which he has been subjected," the labour ministry said in a statement. A French magistrate will study his complaint and decide whether criminal charges can be brought.

Prime Minister Francois Fillon meanwhile rebuffed mounting calls for a ministerial reshuffle to clear the air, vowing: "We will not give in to this upheaval."

Woerth has blamed "a political plot orchestrated by the Socialist Party", while others slammed the media, notably 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 told France Info radio, in an apparent reference to fascist political currents in pre-war France.

Mediapart had quoted Thibout as saying that Sarkozy had also received envelopes of cash from the family.

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

Woerth has been accused of a conflict of interest since the revelation that his wife worked for a firm managing Bettencourt's 17-billion-euro (21-billion-dollar) fortune while as budget minister he was fighting tax evasion.

He insists he did nothing wrong but various politicians and commentators from within Sarkozy's own right-wing camp have urged the president to speak out on the matter.

Families minister Nadine Morano reiterated the charge by other Sarkozy supporters that Mediapart had used "fascist methods".

The journalist who founded the site, Edwy Plenel, told France Info he would sue Sarkozy's allies for defamation for the "fascist" comment and insisted Mediapart's reporting was in the public interest.

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

Sarkozy on Tuesday described the affair as "a slander with only one goal, to smear with no basis in reality."

But neither he nor Woerth has 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 cash.

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.

A Swiss justice ministry spokesman meanwhile told AFP that French investigators would not be able to check if any political donations had come from Bettencourt's bank accounts there.

This kind of cooperation would only be possible if the offences being investigated in France were also illegal in Switzerland, which in this instance -- allegations of illegal party financing -- was not the case, said the official.

© 2010 AFP

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