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France

Scandal-plagued Sarkozy faces nation on TV

©

Video by Fiona CAMERON

Text by FRANCE 24 (with wires)

Latest update : 2010-07-12

In a rare summertime live interview Monday, French President Nicolas Sarkozy is expected to address the burgeoning political scandal over allegations L'Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt made illegal donations to his party.

President Nicolas Sarkozy faces the nation in a prime time TV interview Monday night as he battles record low approval ratings and a growing political donations scandal that has turned into the biggest challenge confronting the French president since he took office three years ago.

In a rare summer time TV interview Monday, Sarkozy will face French journalist David Pujadas, the main anchor of the public televison network France 2, on the terrace of the Elysée presidential palace - a first in France.

The embattled French president has also promised to address questions from ordinary French people posted on the presidential Facebook page in an attempt to reach out to voters.

In a message posted on his page, the French president invited queries about his controversial pension reform proposal as well as any other topics viewers might be interested in.

The topic that’s most likely to top the agenda is what the French call “L’affaire Bettencourt,” a scandal involving alleged cash handouts to conservative politicians by L’Oreal heiress and France’s richest woman, Liliane Bettencourt, and her late husband.

Report clears Woerth, but not in the public eye

At the heart of the Bettencourt scandal lies French cabinet member Eric Woerth, who currently serves as labour minister and treasurer of Sarkozy’s centre-right UMP party. Woerth has faced allegations of accepting an illegal donation from the Bettencourt family for Sarkozy’s campaign. He also faces a conflict of interest scandal as his wife, Florence, worked for the Bettencourt wealth manager until her resignation last month.

Both Woerth and Bettencourt wealth manager Patrice de Maistre have denied allegations of wrongdoing. A report rushed out from the Finance Ministry's tax inspectorate on Sunday concluded that Woerth played no role in the tax affairs of the Bettencourts, their wealth manager or family friends.

But the report, conducted by the government, is unlikely to quell the surge of criticism from the French public or dampen calls from the opposition for Woerth’s resignation.

French officials have attempted to play down the effects of the Bettencourt scandal, with little success. Sarkozy has dismissed the allegations as “libel that aims only to smear, without the slightest basis in reality".

But as the drip of revelations spread from the French labour minister up to the president, Sarkozy’s inner circle was hampered by its failure to react quickly and efficiently to the growing allegations. Monday night’s address will be the French president’s first public confrontation of the scandal and is likely to see viewers across the country glued to their television sets.

Losing a safe parliamentary seat

Monday’s presidential interview comes a day after the UMP lost a safe parliamentary seat in Sunday’s by-election in the Rambouillet constituency south-west of Paris. Opposition Socialist leader Martine Aubry was quick to call the defeat "a very clear snub to the president and the government, and a strong rejection of the climate created by these revelations and scandals”.

It also comes a day before Woerth is set to present a critical pension reform plan to the French Cabinet. Hailed as a pillar of Sarkozy’s 2007 presidential campaign, the pension reform, which will raise the retirement age for public sector workers from 60 to 62, is unpopular with France’s powerful trade unions.

The plan prompted mass protests last month and unions have vowed further action against the reform when parliament debates it in September.

Observers note that the Bettencourt scandal could stiffen opposition to the pension reform plan.

Senior UMP officials however have maintained that Woerth has not been weakened by the scandal and that the labour minister enjoys the president’s support.

Woerth contemplates stepping down as UMP treasurer

But public support for Sarkozy has been steadily dipping over his fiscal reform policies, a controversial national identity debate and allegations of direct meddling in French media ownership.

And an expenses scandal last week saw two junior French ministers quit in a quintessentially French version of a political expenses scandal that involved publicly financed private jets and exorbitantly priced Cuban cigars.

An opinion poll published last week showed the French president’s ratings slipping to a record low 26 percent.

In another poll, 60 percent of respondents said it was "shocking" that Woerth was both a minister and UMP treasurer.

In an interview with Europe 1 Radio Monday, Woerth said he was contemplating standing down as UMP party treasurer in order to avoid any appearance of conflict of interest between his political fund-raising and government administrative roles.

 

Date created : 2010-07-12

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