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France

Inquiry launched into L’Oreal/Sarkozy donations scandal

Video by Pierrick Leurent , Jade BARKER

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2010-07-08

An investigation into allegations that L'Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt and her late husband Andre illegally funded Nicolas Sarkozy’s 2007 election campaign has been ordered by a Paris prosecutor, whose links to Sarkozy are now in the spotlight.

 A Paris prosecutor has opened a preliminary investigation into an alleged illegal cash donation to President Nicolas Sarkozy’s 2007 election campaign.

The inquiry was launched Wednesday by Nanterre Prosecutor Philippe Courroye (whose remit covers the greater Paris area), amid claims that his close personal ties to the Elysée Palace could skew the course of justice.
 
The case centres on claims made by Claire Thibout, formerly the accountant for billionaire L’Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt and her late husband Andre.
 
The investigation, which is only preliminary, could be thrown out if Courroye decides there is insufficient evidence for a prosecution.
 
Origins of the scandal
 
The claims of illegal campaign donations evolved from an ongoing case between Liliane Bettencourt and her butler, who made secret recordings of conversations from which allegations of tax fraud have emerged.
 
Courroye had ruled that two further avenues of investigation had come out of the evidence heard in court: the alleged tax fraud, and the role of Eric Woerth’s wife, who until last week worked as a business advisor to the Bettencourt estate.
 
The prosecutor subsequently instructed police to interview Claire Thibout, Bettencourt’s accountant until she was fired in November 2008.
 
After the police interview on Monday, Ms Thibout was in contact with French start-up news website Mediapart. According to the site, she claimed that French Labour Minister Eric Woerth received an illegal donation of 150,000 euros in cash to help Nicolas Sarkozy’s successful 2007 presidential campaign.
 
Cash withdrawals
 
Specifically, Mrs Thibout says she personally withdrew 50,000 euros at the end of March 2007 at the request of Bettencourt’s wealth manager Patrice de Maistre.
 
She added that she had heard Maistre say in front of her that the cash was destined for the Sarkozy campaign coffers, and that he had gone to a Swiss bank to withdraw a further 100,000 euros before handing all the cash to Woerth, who was campaign treasurer.
 
How French politicians and parties are funded
The significance of the allegations is huge. Individual political donations must not exceed 7,500 euros a year, and some, especially in the Socialist camp, claim that if proved, the alleged cash gift could nullify the result of the 2007 presidential election.
 
Woerth, Sarkozy and Maistre deny any wrongdoing, with Woerth insisting that he will stand firm and not resign.
 
Courroye too close to Sarkozy?
 
Courroye’s role is a further ingredient in the scandal, which has dominated French media in recent weeks. Mediapart pointed out in a June 4 article that last April Courroye was given the French National Order of Merit personally by Sarkozy, who called the prosecutor his “friend”, according to the website.
 
Marie-Blanche Regnier, of the left-leaning French Judges Union (SM) told FRANCE 24 her organisation was increasingly astonished by the way events were unfolding.
 
“We believe that a preliminary inquiry run by Philippe Courroye, who has direct links with the president, is not the best situation,” she said. “This is a strategic choice that allows the prosecutor’s office to maintain control over the whole affair.”
 
She added: “The whole affair shows firstly that it is extremely difficult to conduct inquiries into the business of financial [party donations] and also that the prosecutor’s office is not independent.”

 

Date created : 2010-07-07

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