French President Nicolas Sarkozy and his Labour Minister Eric Woerth, who doubles up as the ruling right-wing party's treasurer, are alleged to have received cash payments from Lilian Bettencourt, Europe's wealthiest woman who owns the cosmetics giant L'Oreal. Mr. Sarkozy's office denied the charges and Mr. Woerth declared he would not be forced out of office on “trumped up charges”.
With each passing day, Mr. Sarkozy finds himself caught in a deepening politico-financial crisis despite having sacrificed two Ministers accused of corruption last Sunday. The person in the line of fire and who Mr. Sarkozy continues to protect is Mr. Woerth. But on Tuesday fresh allegations of corruption were made that touch the President himself.
A former accountant, identified only as Claire T., who worked for Liliane Bettencourt, the 87-year-old L'Oreal heiress was quoted on Tuesday as saying she gave Mr. Woerth the donations in cash. “She gave two names, Eric Woerth, the current Labour Minister, who has long been treasurer of the UMP party, and Nicolas Sarkozy. Claire T. told us how, in March 2007, she gave Mr. Woerth €150,000 in cash for Sarkozy's campaign. Since the accountant's withdrawal limit in cash was €50,000, Ms. Bettencourt's financial manager withdrew the rest from an account in Switzerland,” Edwy Plenel, the Editor of the Internet news site Mediapart, which reported the allegations, said in an interview.
This is just the latest in a string of allegations against Mr. Woerth that are being published daily by newspapers and periodicals which claim that the Labour Minister had a definite conflict of interest: he was treasurer of the ruling party while being the Minister for the Budget and in that capacity was in charge of taxation. In addition, his wife was one of Ms. Bettencourt's financial advisers. Ms. Bettencourt, who is suspected of having engaged in massive tax evasion, gave generously to right-wing parties and no tax enquiries were carried out against her.
Mr. Sarkozy's popularity has suffered a direct hit as a result of corruption charges levelled against several Ministers. His ratings have plummeted to 26 per cent, the lowest any President has recorded since the current 5th Republic was established in 1958. In an attempt to deflect the mounting crescendo against Mr. Woerth, Mr. Sarkozy sacked two Ministers on Sunday. One of them, a former chief of Air France had bought cigars worth €12,000 at taxpayer's expense while the other had hired a private jet at a cost of over €115,000 to attend an hour-long meeting in the Caribbean.
French citizens, reeling from record high unemployment and wage freezes, have run out of patience with top-level Ministers who continue to line their own pockets while preaching austerity measures.
Last week, Mr. Sarkozy, whose office appears to be in perpetual damage-limitation mode, ordered a sharp cutback on the use of official planes, cars, staffs and office equipment.