French President Nicolas Sarkozy denied claims Tuesday that he received a 150,000 euro cash donation from scandal-hit L'Oreal heiress, Liliane Bettencourt. Bettencourt's former accountant said the donation was made via Labour Minister Eric Woerth.
The storm surrounding French Labour Minister Eric Woerth and France’s richest woman, L’Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt is now engulfing President Nicolas Sarkozy.
The deepening scandal, which has gripped the nation and paralysed government in recent days, reached the country’s highest office Tuesday when a former L’Oreal accountant told a French news site that Bettencourt had contributed 150,000 euro in cash to Sarkozy’s 2007 election campaign.
In an interview with the French news site Mediapart, the former accountant, identified as Claire T., said Bettencourt’s financial advisor Patrice de Maistre had given Woerth a 150,000 euro cash donation in unmarked envelopes for Sarkozy’s campaign in 2007.
Besides holding the post of labour minister, Woerth also serves as the treasurer and chief fund-raiser for the ruling UMP party. Before taking over the Labour Ministry in March, Woerth served as France’s budget minister.
Claire T. also claimed that Sarkozy regularly received envelopes of cash when he came to dine at the Bettencourt mansion in Neuilly, an upscale suburb of Paris where the president was mayor between 1988 and 2002.
Sarkozy denounces ‘smear with no basis in reality’
The new allegations made by the former L’Oreal accountant are only the latest among a series of reports that have plagued Sarkozy’s administration in recent days and which the French press refer to as “L’affair Bettencourt.
Reacting to the allegations Tuesday, the French president denied involvement in the scandal and said he was a victim of a political smear campaign.
"I would love it so much if the country could take an interest in the big problems ... rather than get carried away with the first sign of slander, with only one goal, to smear, with no basis in reality," Sarkozy told reporters.
Woerth has also denied accepting cash donations for Sarkozy and has resisted calls by the opposition to resign.
"I have no intention of resigning,” the embattled labour minister told reporters Tuesday, stressing that his resignation would only be a “victory for those who insult me”.
While donations from private individuals are the only form of campaign financing allowed under French law, the amounts involved and the manner in which they were allegedly transferred to Woerth and Sarkozy are illegal. Under French law, individual political donations must not exceed 7,500 euro a year.
Antoine Gillot, the lawyer for Claire T., told FRANCE24 that the information provided by her client was reliable and by no means a gratuitous accusation.
“My client did not leave her job on bad terms with Mrs. Bettencourt, for whom she shares great affection,” said Gillot. “My client has been under intense pressure for several days…she has cleared her conscience because [the information] weighed down on her.”
'Picking up cash'
Controversy: France 24's French politics editor Marc Perleman analyses alleged cash donation to Sarkozy campaign
Mediapart quoted Claire T. as saying she had collected large sums in cash from a bank in the elite 16th district of Paris over many years, which the Bettencourts gave to politicians who visited them at their villa in the exclusive Neuilly residential suburb.
“Politicians were constantly marching through the house, especially at election time. Dede (Andre Bettencourt, Mrs. Bettencourt’s late husband) was a big giver. They all came to pick up their envelopes, sometimes as much as 100,000 euros, or even 200,000 euros,” the bookkeeper was quoted as saying.
She said Sarkozy was a regular visitor to the villa in the 1990s when he was mayor of Neuilly. “Nicolas Sarkozy used to get his envelope too.” Mediapart quoted Claire T. as saying. “Again, everyone in the house knew that Sarkozy too went to see the Bettencourts to pick up money.”
In an interview with FRANCE 24, Edwy Plenel, Mediapart director said Claire T. could not prove her allegations with documents because she had handed back three cash books along with other papers after she left her post in November 2008.
“While it is possible, if not to justify, but to understand this kind of practice when there wasn’t any oversight of political financing, it has not been the case in this country for the last 20 years,” Plenel said.
Woerth’s involvement in "L’affaire Bettencourt" surfaced when wiretaps allegedly caught Bettencourt’s finance manager Patrice de Maistre, telling the L’Oreal heiress that he had hired Florence Woerth, the minister’s wife, at the request of the minister.
Mrs. Woerth resigned from her post in June, but the minister has denied any wrongdoing and rejected any conflict of interest between his multiple roles in the government, or his close relationship with the super-wealthy Bettencourt family.
The labour minister is in charge of a landmark reform of pensions due to go to parliament in September, and the French media has been rife with speculation that Sarkozy’s administration sacked two Junior Ministers last week in an effort to deflect attention away from the scandal-hit minister.
Date created : 2010-07-06