Sarkozy defends minister under fire over L'Oreal heiress

26th June 2010, Comments 0 comments

President Nicolas Sarkozy on Saturday voiced "total" support for his under-fire Labour Minister Eric Woerth who, along with his wife, is embroiled in a row over tax evasion by France's richest woman.

"Do I still have confidence in Eric Woerth, yes. Totally and completely," Sarkozy told journalists in Canada, where he is attending the G8 summit, of the minister who has been handling France's sensitive retirement reform.

"And if you ask me the question again tomorrow morning, I will give you the same answer. He's leading our retirement reform with much professionalism and calmness and that's valuable," Sarkozy said.

Woerth, a high-flyer in Sarkozy's right-wing government, has denied his wife Florence turned a blind eye to tax evasion as she helped manage Liliane Bettencourt's 16-billion-euro (19.8-billion-dollar) fortune.

Florence Woerth has also vehemently denied being aware of any financial fraud on the part of Bettencourt, the 87-year-old L'Oreal heiress, but said she would step down from her job after the allegations surfaced.

Woerth is a rising star in Sarkozy's government who was known as "Mr Clean" and in a previous post led a major crackdown on tax evasion.

Despite Sarkozy's support, the head of the centrist Modem movement, Francois Bayrou, said the Bettencourt affair had "weakened" both Woerth and the government.

"I think that the situation is made much more complicated by what's happening," Bayrou told journalists in parliament on Saturday.

"I think that it's very difficult to be in charge of a dossier like that of retirement while being the subject of revelations every day," he said, adding that "all of the government" had been weakened.

"I'm not one of those seeking his (Woerth's) resignation. The composition of the governmental team is the responsibility of the head of state. But the French people can see there's a problem."

Bettencourt has been at the centre of a political storm since last week when secret tapes revealed she had allegedly conspired to hide money in Swiss bank accounts while making donations to friends in Sarkozy's UMP party.

Bettencourt pledged on Monday to declare all of her foreign assets, which include millions in Switzerland, to comply with French laws.

The tapes are the latest twist in a long-running family feud between the billionaire and her daughter, who claims Bettencourt is mentally unfit after she gave more than a billion euros to a photographer friend, Francois-Marie Banier.

On Friday prosecutors in the Nanterre suburb of Paris said they had alerted tax authorities in January last year of possible financial fraud in the case.

Woerth said he had personally ordered a tax probe of Banier last year, while the director of public finances in the budget ministry, Philippe Parini, said he had received no instructions from Woerth regarding Bettencourt.

A spokesman at the presidential Elysee palace denied that prosecutors had raised the alarm about Bettencourt, and said that he tax affairs and Baniers were separate issues.

Banier is set to go on trial in Nanterre next Thursday on charges he took advantage of Bettencourt.

© 2010 AFP

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