Sarkozy to make TV response on finance scandal

12th July 2010, Comments 0 comments

President Nicolas Sarkozy's labour minister said Monday he may step down as ruling party treasurer, ahead of the French leader giving his first public response to a funding scandal dogging his rule.

Sarkozy was due to face a television interview later in the day in which he was expected to be questioned over allegations his 2007 presidential campaign received illegal cash donations from France's richest woman.

The crisis has proved to be the most severe of Sarkozy's term to date and, with his poll ratings at an historic low, he will be hoping to put the matter behind him and return to his plans to reform the pension system.

In the build-up to the appearance, supporters made great play of a finance ministry report which they said cleared Labour Minister Eric Woerth of having intervened to protect L'Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt from tax scrutiny.

Woerth, who formerly served as budget minister with responsibility for stopping tax evasion, has been accused by a former Bettencourt accountant of receiving 150,000 euros in cash during Sarkozy's 2007 race.

The 87-year-old shampoo billionaire is France's richest woman and one of the biggest beneficiaries of a tax break for the wealthy passed by Sarkozy after he won that election, receiving a lawful 30-million-euro rebate.

The government report released Sunday said it could find no evidence Woerth intervened to protect Bettencourt's affairs from scrutiny by tax inspectors, and the minister has fiercely denied taking any illegal campaign cash.

Woerth said Monday he was thinking of standing down as UMP party treasurer in order to avoid any appearance of conflict of interest between his political fund-raising and government administrative roles.

Sarkozy's supporters declared the matter closed, with a another broadside at the media critics who made the accusations public, but the government's antagonists insisted that many questions remain unanswered.

"I'll see ... I'm going to think about it," Woerth said, when asked if he would step aside as party treasurer, telling Europe 1 radio that he was "extremely relieved" by the conclusions of the inquiry.

"I don't know what the president will say this evening. I just know that the president has supported me and supported me with great strength. I take my hat off to Nicolas Sarkozy," he added.

UMP party chairman Xavier Bertrand insisted the report proved there had been no conflict of interest, and that the allegations against Woerth had been "quite simply lies" exploited by the opposition Socialists.

He also stood by his declaration last week that reporters at the investigative website Mediapart, which first revealed the accountant's allegations, had adopted "fascist methods" to smear the president.

Mediapart has threatened to sue ministers and UMP officials over the fascist charge and continued Monday to insist the government has questions to answer, while the opposition called for an independent probe.

Several inquiries are underway into Bettencourt's affairs, and police have questioned the accountant who made the party funding accusation and have raided the heiress' offices to seize documents.

Socialist party spokesman Benoit Hamon said Monday the internal report into Woerth proved nothing as it was just the finance ministry probing itself.

Meanwhile, he said, it is government prosecutors investigating the funding complaints, including one who has been himself implicated in the scandal. He called for an investigative magistrate to be named to oversee inquiries.

"What we want is an independent judge to oversee the investigation of this matter," Hamon told I-Tele. "It's not for the government, through the tax authorities, to say whether this show is over or not."

© 2010 AFP

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