Sarkozy refutes corruption charges in live TV interview

In a live TV interview, French President Nicolas Sarkozy has defended embattled Labour Minister Eric Woerth, who is at the centre of corruption allegations involving France's richest woman, and asserted that France is "not a corrupt country".


France is “not a corrupt country”, President Nicolas Sarkozy said in a live TV interview on Monday in defending Labour Minister Eric Woerth, who is accused of receiving illegal campaign donations for Sarkozy from France’s richest woman and her late husband.

In a TV interview broadcast live from the Elysee presidential palace in Paris, Sarkozy said he had “full confidence” in Woerth and that the labour minister would press on with controversial pension reforms as scheduled.

"Eric Woerth is an honest man, a competent man. He enjoys my full confidence", Sarkozy said.

Woerth, who is also treasurer of Sarkozy’s UMP party, has been embroiled for the last fortnight in a scandal involving billionaire L’Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt and her late husband André.

Woerth has been accused of accepting an illegal donation of 150,000 euros from the Bettencourt family towards Sarkozy’s successful 2007 presidential campaign. He also faces a conflict of interest scandal, as his wife, Florence, was working for Bettencourt’s wealth manager Patrice de Maistre until her resignation last month.

Smear campaign

Sarkozy insisted that the allegations of illegal party donations, revealed on left-leaning news Web site, were part of a smear campaign aimed at undermining his government and his plans to reform France's expensive pensions system, which are fiercely opposed by the left and trade unions.

He also said he was advising Woerth to give up his position as treasurer of the UMP party in order to focus exclusively on the reforms, which were a key plank of Sarkozy's election manifesto, in addition to being key to reducing France’s huge deficits.

Woerth denies any allegations of wrongdoing. And, a report published by 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.

Unpopular pension reforms
The presidential interview comes a day before Woerth is set to present a critical, and unpopular, pension reform plan to the French Cabinet (Council of Ministers), which would raise the retirement age for public sector workers from 60 to 62.
Sarkozy insisted that continued protests and opposition from trade unions would not stop his government from implementing the reforms.

He said: “We will not move on 62 [becoming the minimum retirement age]. Balancing public spending with what people contribute [during their working lives] is a matter of justice. We will not move on this.”

Sarkozy also announced that there would be a cabinet reshuffle, which will likely take place in October after the start of the parliamentary term.

An opinion poll published last week showed the French president’s ratings slipping to a record low of 26%. In another poll, 60% of respondents said it was "shocking" that Woerth was both a minister and UMP treasurer.


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