Latest update: 02/09/2010
Pressure rises on embattled labour minister
France’s labour minister has come under further scrutiny after appearing to backtrack on a claim that he had not intervened on behalf of his wife's employer, L’Oreal fortune manager Patrice de Maistre, for France's prestigious Légion d'Honneur award.
By NEWS WIRES (text)
REUTERS - French Labour Minister Eric Woerth, the man spearheading a controversial pension reform, acknowledged on Thursday intervening in favour of the wealth manager of Europe's richest woman receiving a prestigious title.
What began as a family feud between L'Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt and her daughter has exploded into a series of investigations concerning political donations, suspected tax evasion and money laundering.
Woerth, a close ally of Sarkozy, has come under pressure to resign after it emerged that his wife worked for Bettencourt's wealth manager and allegations surfaced that he had received illegal funds for Sarkozy's 2007 election campaign.
He has repeatedly denied the allegations.
Bettencourt's wealth manager, Patrice de Maistre, had the file on his prestigious Legion d'Honneur title seized by the prosecutor's office in July.
Maistre received the award in early 2008 from Woerth, two months after Woerth's wife Florence was recruited to work at the firm Clymene, which manages Bettencourt's vast fortune.
Woerth told journalists on Thursday he wrote a letter in 2007 to then Interior Minister Sarkozy, backing a request for the honour.
The minister, who has also been questioned by prosecutors, played down his intervention in favour of Maistre as banal, saying he acted just as any member of parliament would.
"I never said the letter did not exist ... I have never lied about anything," Woerth said.
Florence Woerth has denied any quid pro quo arrangement but has said it was Maistre who offered her the job, only a few weeks after her husband began working at the Budget Ministry.
Maistre has also been questioned by police regarding the donation allegations and suggestions Woerth influenced the hiring of his wife. Both have denied any wrongdoing.
A senior French prosecutor is investigating Woerth's role in Bettencourt's tax affairs and his alleged favouritism in a land deal, a source close to the prosecutor said on Aug. 29.
The sleaze surrounding the affair may well reinforce public willingness to fight the pension reform as trade unions prepare a general strike on Sept. 7 and parliament begins debating the reform on the same day. [ID:nLDE6811G9]
But despite the continued rumblings, commentators say President Sarkozy cannot afford to drop his minister during the reform programme, potentially delaying it.
Meanwhile, police raided Bettencourt's home for the second time on Wednesday in another lawsuit involving society photographer Francois-Marie Banier, to whom she is alleged to have given gifts worth 1 billion euros.
It is the lawsuit launched by Bettencourt's daughter Francoise Meyers-Bettencourt, over lavish gifts to Banier that turned into a political scandal as evidence emerged of undeclared Swiss bank accounts, an island in the Seychelles and alleged large cash donations to conservative politicians.