POLICE yesterday probed allegations that President Nicolas Sarkozy’s election campaign received illegal donations from France’s richest woman throwing up the biggest crisis of his mandate.
The French leader dismissed the charges as “smears” but he faces mounting calls from within his camp to make a stronger defence over the scandal engulfing the ruling party.
Two ministers have already resigned this week for spending public money on cigars and luxury jets and pressure is growing on Labour Minister Eric Woerth for his role in the alleged funding that came from L’Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt.
“I would love it so much if the country could excite itself over the big problems... rather than to get wrapped up in a slander with only one goal, to smear with no basis in reality,” Sarkozy said.
Sarkozy did not directly address the allegations, but instead called for voters to concentrate on healthcare, pension reform and the economic recovery.
Elected in 2007, Sarkozy’s approval ratings are at their lowest levels ever and he faces an uphill battle to get his reform programme back on track before seeking re-election in 2012.
New allegations have said that Woerth, the ruling UMP treasurer as well as a key minister, received €150,000 in cash from Bettencourt.
Political donations in France are limited to €4,600 for individuals, and cash contributions cannot exceed €150.
The investigative website Mediapart interviewed a former Bettencourt accountant, identified as Claire T, who alleged the heiress often gave cash to right-wing politicians.
The accountant’s lawyer, Antoine Gillot, confirmed his client had told police about the alleged payments.
According to Mediapart, the accountant also alleges Sarkozy personally received envelopes of cash at Bettencourt’s mansion when the future president was mayor of the Paris suburb of Neuilly.
An aide to Sarkozy dismissed the report as “totally false”. Woerth denied any wrongdoing and said he would not resign.
He told I-Tele: “I am totally outraged. It’s been eight years that I’ve been treasurer of my party and I don’t think I’ve done anything wrong. Everything is transparent, everything is clean, everything is clear.”
Sarkozy defended Woerth after it was revealed that his wife worked for a firm managing Bettencourt’s €17 billion personal fortune. But, with the head of state now personally implicated in the scandal, key right-wing allies, including the UMP leader in parliament, Jean-Francois Cope, called on the president to “speak to the French people” about the scandal.
The Socialist leader of the parliamentary opposition, Jean-Marc Ayrault, said the Bettencourt inquiry had become a “political crisis at the head of government”.
Claire T told police and Mediapart that Woerth received the donation in cash in March 2007, ahead of Sarkozy’s election in May.
Woerth has since served as Sarkozy’s budget minister charged with fighting tax evasion by personalities like Bettencourt, and now as labour minister is fighting to push through pensions reform.
Mediapart quoted Claire T as saying she had been asked for €150,000 by Bettencourt’s financial adviser Patrice de Maistre, who told her he would give it “discreetly” to Woerth at a dinner.
The accountant, who worked for Bettencourt for 12 years until 2008, said she believed Sarkozy had also received envelopes in person while he was mayor between 1983 and 2002.
“Everyone in the house knew that Sarkozy went to see the Bettencourts to collect money,” Mediapart quoted her as saying.
The scandal implicating the heiress started with secret tapes recorded by the 87-year-old billionaire’s butler and leaked to media last month.
Woerth’s name came up in the conversations, in which she and Maistre – who denies all the allegations – allegedly plotted to evade taxes by moving assets abroad ahead of a crackdown ordered by Woerth.
Seeking to regain the political initiative, Sarkozy on Sunday accepted the resignations of international development secretary Alain Joyandet and Christian Blanc, minister for the Paris region, over their personal expenses.
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