Probe into Sarkozy link to heiress cash

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Prosecutors investigated claims Wednesday that President Nicolas Sarkozy's campaign received illegal funding from France's richest woman, as allies attacked his accusers' "fascist" tactics.

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

Sarkozy's allies hit back over the allegations, accusing the media of "fascist" tactics and dismissing the scandal as lies.

"We will not give in to this upheaval," Prime Minister Francois Fillon declared, rebuffing calls for a ministerial clearout.

Claire Thibout told police that in early 2007 Bettencourt's financial advisor gave 150,000 euros (188,000 dollars) in cash to Eric Woerth, treasurer for Sarkozy's UMP party and now also labour minister.

Woerth has blamed what he called "a political plot orchestrated by the Socialist Party", while others slammed the media, notably the 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 billionaire. The affair started with a Mediapart report based on conversations secretly recorded by her butler.

"When certain media, notably a site that uses fascist methods based on recordings that are totally illegal ... what kind of world are we living in?" declared Xavier Bertrand, the UMP leader.

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 charged with fighting tax evasion.

Woerth insists he did nothing wrong. But politicians and commentators from within Sarkozy's own right-wing camp have urged the president to act.

"It is urgent that the president speak out himself," said Francois Bayrou, leader of the centre-right Modem party, describing Sarkozy's situation as a "moral and political crisis," in comments on RTL radio.

Sarkozy expressed support for Woerth at a cabinet meeting Wednesday, telling ministers to "go about their work calmly," government spokesman Luc Chatel told reporters.

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

On Tuesday, Sarkozy complained of attempts to smear him, but neither he nor Woerth have 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.

"I would love it so much if the country could excite itself over the big problems ... rather than to get wrapped up in the first horror, a slander with only one goal, to smear with no basis in reality," Sarkozy said.

His 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.

An opinion poll by the Ifop agency found 69 percent of French voters would like to see an immediate cabinet reshuffle. Fillon said on Wednesday this was not a "priority."

© 2010 AFP

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