French unions pile pressure on scandal-stricken minister

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Trade unions on Friday branded France's scandal-stricken labour minister unfit to defend controversial pension reforms, despite fresh backing for him from President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Months of damaging allegations have heaped pressure on Eric Woerth who was on Tuesday due to present to parliament plans to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62, a centrepiece of Sarkozy's reform agenda ahead of 2012 elections.

Sarkozy said Woerth was still able to defend the reform next week, offering some relief for the minister from opposition calls for him to resign over a scandal linked to France's richest woman, L'Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt.

But powerful labour union leaders, whom the government must engage with over their fierce opposition to the pensions plan, warned the scandal was disrupting their efforts to discuss the reform with Woerth.

"How can he manage his personal problems with the Bettencourt affair and the pensions reform at the same time?" said Francois Chereque, leader of the CFDT, a major union, in an interview published Friday in the newspaper Les Echos.

"The situation is causing the essentials of the plan not to be discussed. That is a real problem," he added, echoing a complaint also being made by the leaders of two other key unions, the CGT and FO.

CGT leader Bernard Thibault told Les Echos: "Eric Woerth is objectively more occupied, and preoccupied, by things other than the subject which interests us."

But Woerth insisted Friday that he was "mobilised 120 percent, three days ahead of the parliamentary debate," and Sarkozy said his minister was still able to present the bill to parliament on Tuesday.

The president, asked during a visit to a factory in central France whether he still supported Woerth a day after the months-long conflict of interest scandal re-erupted around the minister, replied simply: "Yes."

Woerth staunchly denies any wrongdoing in the Bettencourt affair, in which authorities have launched several investigations into the affairs of the 87-year-old cosmetics empire heiress.

The most serious allegation is of illegal funding to Sarkozy's UMP party.

On Thursday Woerth told reporters he sent a letter in 2007 to then-interior minister Sarkozy, recommending that Patrick de Maistre, who later employed Woerth's wife, be awarded the prestigious Legion d'Honneur decoration.

Maistre runs a company that manages part of Bettencourt's fortune.

Woerth had previously denied actively intervening to support Maistre, and on Thursday he reiterated his denial of wrongdoing in the case, insisting: "I never lied about anything to anybody."

On Thursday Prime Minister Francois Fillon had appeared to temper his backing for Woerth, declining to respond to the latest twist when questioned by reporters -- but later came out explicitly in Woerth's support.

A statement from Fillon's office late on Thursday said the prime minister had "entire confidence in Eric Woerth who is faced with an unacceptable campaign of denigration."

© 2010 AFP

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