Embattled French minister hit by new finance claim

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A beleaguered French minister already battling allegations about his links to L'Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt was hit by new financial allegations Monday that could further undermine his standing.

Eric Woerth, President Nicolas Sarkozy's minister for work and pensions, has been struggling to push unpopular retirement reforms through parliament while dogged by a series of cash scandals that have rocked the government.

On Monday, the news website Mediapart reported that, in 2008, Woerth made a false declaration of his revenue while successfully applying for a private bank loan to fund his campaign for re-election as mayor of Chantilly.

According to an apparent copy of the loan form published by Mediapart, Woerth described himself as an "engineer and technical executive" who earned only 3,000 euros (3,800 dollars) per month.

In fact, Woerth's ministerial salary at the time was 14,000 euros per month, while he could count on a further 2,400 euros as mayor and may have had other income from outside investments.

The declaration does not record Woerth as having paid any income tax.

It was not immediately clear what Woerth might have hoped to achieve by allegedly minimising his revenues in this way, as banks normally prefer to see proof of sufficient income before according loans.

But Mediapart speculated that the minister may have wanted to avoid providing the lender, Credit Agricole, with a record of his full tax declaration in order to hide something else.

The minister was not immediately available for comment, but a member of his inner circle told AFP that the loan was obtained properly in the normal manner for electoral contests and had been repaid in full.

Many French candidates take out loans to pay for their campaigns and repay them through the state political funding they receive if they get enough votes to pass a minimum threshold of credibility.

"Credit Agricole knew perfectly well the real situation of Eric Woerth's revenue, as he had been the bank's client for a long time," the official said, describing the latest allegations as an "absurdity".

Nevertheless, he was unable or unwilling to offer an explanation as to why Woerth had signed a form containing apparently false information.

Woerth has been working under a cloud for months after being implicated in a series of investigations into the financial affairs of Bettencourt, an 87-year-old multi-billionaire and France's richest woman.

Police have interviewed the minister over allegations he received illegal party funding from Bettencourt for Sarkozy's 2007 presidential race and that there was a conflict of interest in his wife working for the heiress.

Woerth has furiously denied all the charges.

© 2010 AFP

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