French police say a third inquiry has been launched after searching the home and offices of a financial adviser to L'Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt over allegations that she made illegal donations to President Nicolas Sarkozy's 2007 campaign.
REUTERS - French President Nicolas Sarkozy will make a rare summer address to the nation, his office said on Friday, amid mounting pressure on his government over a key pension reform and questions about political donations.
In the latest twist in a complex affair that has rocked the centre-right government, police searched the premises of the wealth manager of France's richest woman earlier in the day.
They are trying to find out whether L'Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt and her late husband made illegal donations to conservative politicians for the 2007 election campaign.
Labour Minister Eric Woerth has a key role because he is in charge of a key pension reform to be presented to the cabinet on Tuesday, and was Sarkozy's election campaign treasurer at the time of the alleged donations.
Angry voters have called for a cabinet reshuffle and, after weeks of turmoil, Sarkozy's office said on Friday that he would make a rare pre-summer holiday television address on Monday, the day before the pension reform's presentation to cabinet.
A source at the presidential palace said Sarkozy's appearance was not related to the political crisis.
The donations inquiry was ordered after Claire Thibout, Bettencourt's former bookkeeper, said she had routinely withdrawn cash destined for illegal political donations at the request of Patrice de Maistre, who managed Bettencourt's fortune.
During police questioning this week Thibout was brought face to face with de Maistre, who has denied her allegations.
Authorities searched de Maistre's home and offices on Friday. "When you have an investigation of this size, several investigations, this type of search is not surprising," de Maistre's lawyer, Pascal Wilhelm, told Reuters.
The French weekly magazine Marianne, citing the former bookkeeper's ledgers, said on Friday that more than 390,000 euros ($495,000) in cash had been withdrawn from Bettencourt's account in the four months before the 2007 election.
Chantal Trovel, the former private secretary of Bettencourt's late husband, told police that envelopes of cash had been given to politicians, according to her lawyer, who is also acting for Thibout.
The website Mediapart quoted Thibout, in an interview published earlier this week, as saying that Sarkozy was one of the politicians who came to Bettencourt's villa in a wealthy Paris suburb to collect cash.
But on Thursday Thibout denied naming Sarkozy as a direct recipient of cash, saying Mediapart had misquoted her. Mediapart said it had "scrupulously transcribed" Thibout's words.
Government officials said her retraction exonerated Sarkozy.
Thibout's lawyer told Reuters his client had not backtracked on a separate allegation she made, that Woerth had received 150,000 euros in illegal campaign donations when he was campaign treasurer.
Woerth denies any wrongdoing.
Last month Mediapart released secretly recorded conversations between Bettencourt, whose fortune is estimated at 14.4 billion euros, and her advisers raising questions about the elderly tycoon's tax returns.
Police said late on Friday they had opened a third investigation into tax fraud after searches of her wealth manager's home and offices.
Opposition lawmakers, who have asked why Woerth did not order a probe into Bettencourt's tax affairs when he was budget minister, are awaiting a report from the budget ministry auditor, due to be published on Monday.
Sarkozy's approval ratings have dropped to an all-time low, and a survey released on Friday showed he would lose the second round of the next general election, due in 2012, to Socialist Party leader Martine Aubry.
Date created : 2010-07-10