Sarkozy under fire over alleged illegal donations from French heiress

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By Edward Cody
Wednesday, July 7, 2010

PARIS -- President Nicolas Sarkozy, who promised French voters a "republic beyond reproach," came under mounting pressure Tuesday from allies as well as opponents over allegations that he and his campaign organization took illegal cash donations from France's richest woman.

The accusations, made to police and posted on a Web site by the heiress's former accountant, are the latest in a string of scandals involving Sarkozy's government and 87-year-old Liliane Bettencourt, who owns the L'Oreal cosmetics firm and, with a fortune estimated at $20 billion, can say with confidence, "I'm worth it."

The opposition Socialist Party's general secretary, Martine Aubry, called on Sarkozy to explain himself and said France was "confronting a major crisis of confidence." Jean-François Copé, who leads Sarkozy's ruling coalition in Parliament, said the president should "speak to the French people" to bring the crisis under control and allow the country to focus on its economic problems.

But Sarkozy declined to address the allegations directly. In an appearance at a health facility, he instead decried those who he said were diverting attention from essential issues such as health care to wallow in "horror and calumny that has only one goal, to soil others without any kind of reality."

"What an era," he lamented.

Two of Sarkozy's junior ministers, Christian Blanc and Alain Joyandet, resigned under pressure Sunday evening after unconnected but embarrassing revelations contributed to the political storm: Blanc charged his ministry $15,000 for fancy Cuban cigars over the past 10 months, and Joyandet used political connections to obtain a zoning variance for expansion of his Mediterranean villa overlooking the upscale St. Tropez resort.

Sarkozy's Socialist opponents interpreted the resignations as a bid to divert attention from Labor Minister Eric Woerth, who is under increasing fire for staying on as chief fundraiser for Sarkozy's political party, the Union for a Popular Movement, during his previous job as budget minister in charge of tax collection.

Suspicions of influence-peddling were heightened when it became known, through conversations recorded by a disgruntled butler, that Woerth's wife worked as a financial adviser to Bettencourt at a time when the heiress maintained secret Swiss bank accounts to avoid paying French taxes -- even as Woerth was campaigning against tax dodgers.

Florence Woerth denied knowing of the Swiss accounts but resigned several days after the recordings were revealed. Eric Woerth also denied that favoritism had been a factor despite a subsequent revelation that he had pinned the Legion of Honor on Bettencourt's chief financial manager, Patrice de Maistre, not long before Florence was hired.

The new allegations by Bettencourt's former accountant, Claire Thibout, were first made Monday to police investigating the secret tape recordings as part of a court battle over the family fortune between the heiress and her daughter, Thibout's attorney told reporters. They were repeated to the investigative Web site Mediapart, which published them early Tuesday.

Thibout told Mediapart that de Maistre had told her in 2007 to withdraw about $185,000 from one of Bettencourt's bank accounts to be handed over to Woerth to help finance Sarkozy's presidential campaign. She also said Sarkozy had received regular cash donations from Bettencourt's office when he was mayor of Neuilly, the cosseted Paris suburb where the heiress lives.

Both allegations were explosive, because French law bars donations of more than $9,500 for a political party and $5,700 for a single candidate, and because Thibout's story marked the first time Sarkozy had been named in the matter.

Sarkozy's office said he had received no money from Bettencourt when he was mayor. Woerth also denied receiving under-the-table donations when he was Sarkozy's campaign fundraiser, adding that he is fed up with what he called baseless charges against him, his party and his wife.

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