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Updated: July 7, 2010 16:55 IST

Inquiry opened into illegal funding of Sarkozy presidential campaign

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Labour Minister Eric Woerth leaves the Elysee Palace after the weekly cabinet meeting in Paris, on Wednesday. Photo: AP.
Labour Minister Eric Woerth leaves the Elysee Palace after the weekly cabinet meeting in Paris, on Wednesday. Photo: AP.

The public prosecutor of Nanterre has opened an investigation into allegations that the treasurer of President Nicolas Sarkozy’s 2007 presidential campaign accepted illegal contributions, a spokeswoman for the prosecutor said on Wednesday.

The investigation will look into statements by the former accountant of Liliane Bettencourt, the heiress to the L’Oreal cosmetics fortune and one of the richest women in the world.

On Tuesday, the online daily MediaPart published an interview with the accountant, Claire Thibout, who said that Bettencourt had secretly contributed 150,000 euros (188,000 dollars) to Mr. Sarkozy’s campaign, far above the legal limit of 4,600 euros.

She said the money was given to the campaign treasurer, Eric Woerth, who is currently Mr. Sarkozy’s Minister for Labour and Social Affairs, by the man who manages Bettencourt’s fortune, Patrice de Maistre, during a private dinner.

Ms. Thibout said she had withdrawn 50,000 euros for the contribution on March 26, 2007 from a Paris bank, and had personally seen Ms. Bettencourt hand the money to Mr. Maistre. She also said Mr. Maistre had taken the rest of the money from a Swiss bank account.

The daily Le Monde reported on Wednesday that police have confirmed the withdrawal of the 50,000 euros on March 26, and have also determined that such an amount was withdrawn from the Bettencourt account twice a month.

Late Tuesday, Mr. Woerth denied the allegations, telling TF 1 television that he had “never received a single euro from Ms. Liliane Bettencourt, especially in that manner.” Mr. Woerth is also suspected of having ignored tax evasion undertaken by Ms. Bettencourt and her advisers through allegedly transferring tens of millions of euros to foreign banks.

“I will not resign,” he said on Tuesday. “I never considered it.

There’s no reason for me to do so.” Mr. Woerth is pushing through the reform to the French pension system, the most important measure of Sarkozy’s presidency, and is therefore considered a key member of the conservative government.

As a result, members of the government and lawmakers from his and Mr. Sarkozy’s UMP party have violently attacked both the opposition Socialists and French media.

Speaking on BFM television on Wednesday, Defence Minister Herve Morin accused the French media of engaging in “a frantic competition between classic and internet media (where) nothing is checked any more.” On Tuesday, Budget Minister Francois Baroin accused Socialist lawmakers in the National Assembly of “playing the game of right—wing extremists,” which resulted in all of the Socialists leaving the body in protest.

Mr. Sarkozy himself has been strangely silent on the affair, except to call the allegations “slanders” during a round table discussion on public health in a Paris suburb on Tuesday.

But the affair is taking its toll on his standing with the French.

In a poll made public on Wednesday in the weekly L’Express, only 33 per cent of respondents said they had a “good opinion” of the French president, a drop of seven per cent in two months.

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