FRENCH President Nicolas Sarkozy urged a minister at the centre of a furore over alleged illegal political donations to step down as treasurer of his ruling UMP party, but said he had been cleared of any wrongdoing.
Seeking to draw a line under the damaging affair in a live television interview, Sarkozy said Labour Minister Eric Woerth still enjoyed his full confidence and would remain in charge of crucial pensions reform due to be enacted in October.
“He is cleared of all suspicion, so there is no reason why I should get rid of him,” the president said.
However, to avoid any suspicion of a conflict of interest: “I spoke to Eric Woerth and I asked him to devote himself exclusively to the reform of pensions... My advice to him is to no longer exercise that responsibility [as treasurer].”
The president said he was determined to raise the retirement age to 62 from 60 and make people contribute longer for a full pension, despite expected protests in September, to prevent France entering a debt spiral comparable with Greece or Portugal.
He went on prime time television to try to restore battered confidence hours after police searched the home of France’s richest woman and a close friend.
A former bookkeeper for L’Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt has told police that the billionairess and her late husband made illegal cash donations to conservative politicians for years, including for Sarkozy’s 2007 election campaign.
The president insisted France was not corrupt but there had been too many bad habits in politics, and he was determined to clean them up.
The searches of Bettencourt, 87, and society photographer Francois-Marie Banier came amid calls for the appointment of an independent magistrate to investigate alleged illegal political donations and suspected tax evasion.
Sarkozy rejected any suggestion that the public prosecutor in charge of the case, who is a personal friend of his, was not independent.
Bettencourt’s former bookkeeper has accused Woerth of taking an illegal €150,000 cash donation from Bettencourt’s wealth manager. The minister and the wealth manager have both denied the allegation.
The Finance Ministry’s tax inspectorate concluded in a report rushed out on Sunday that Woerth had not intervened in the tax affairs of the Bettencourts, or their wealth manager or friends while serving as budget minister until March.
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