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France

New challenges confront embattled French labour minister

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2010-09-03

Labour unions are zeroing in on French Labour Minister Eric Woerth as he confronts new allegations that he lied about lobbying for an award on behalf of his wife’s future employer.

Pressure on Eric Woerth, France’s embattled labour minister, is mounting amid new allegations of wrongdoing and a new challenge from labour unions. 
 
His admission on Thursday, after months of denials, that he had in fact lobbied for a prestigious state award on behalf of his wife’s future employer comes as the country’s most powerful unions are squaring up to challenge Woerth over the government’s proposed pension reform agenda.
 
Despite solid support from President Nicolas Sarkozy throughout a summer of political controversy, a subtle hint was dropped this week that suggested Woerth’s tenure in the cabinet may soon come to an end.
 
Facing down the unions
 
Everyone in France is bracing for a massive national strike on Tuesday led by the country’s two most powerful unions. The CGT and CFDT have announced plans to disrupt public transportation, schools and even telecommunications as part of a larger protest against the government’s proposed pension reforms.  The unions are staunchly opposed to the plan’s ambition to raise the national retirement age from 60 to 62. 
 
Until now, the unions had largely steered clear of the controversy surrounding Woerth and the cash-for-favours scandal involving France’s wealthiest woman and heir to the L’Oreal cosmetics fortune, Liliane Bettencourt. Now, however, union leaders recognise an opportunity to open a new front in their attack on the proposed pension plan by targeting the embattled labour minister directly. 
 
"I ask myself one question: how can he manage at the same time the problems of the 'Bettencourt Affair' and the pension reform?" CFDT leader Francois Chereque told the French newspaper Les Echos on Friday.
 
The president, for his part, continues to stand by Woerth.  On Friday, Sarkozy reaffirmed his support for his minister and his confidence in him to present the pension legislation to parliament.  
 
Sarkozy's latest indication of support comes however on the heels of intense speculation that president may in fact be ready to move on without Woerth. In a discussion about the upcoming pension debate in the National Assembly, Prime Minister Francois Fillion obliquely did not mention Woerth by name: “The pension reform will be handled by the minister in charge, who will go to defend it before the parliament.” Whether that minister is Eric Woerth or someone else in the cabinet remains to be seen.
 
A belated admission
 
Woerth’s weakened political standing was further eroded on Thursday after his belated
admission that he had, in fact, intervened on behalf of Liliane Bettancourt’s wealth manager, who would later become his wife’s future employer. 
 
On Thursday, Woerth acknowledged that he wrote a letter to then interior minister Sarkozy on behalf of Patrice de Maistre to receive one of the country’s most prestigious awards, the Legion d'honneur. Having previously denied the claims, Woerth has now conceded that he did write the letter, which was to be leaked to the press, but denied any wrongdoing. “I wrote it when I was merely a member of parliament,” he said.  
 
This latest turn in the scandal, which is taking a visible toll on Woerth, is unlikely to serve him well. Just a few weeks after presenting Maistre with the Legion d'honneur award, Woerth’s wife started her new job at his firm.

 

Date created : 2010-09-03

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