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Probe launched into illegal billionaire payments to Sarkozy campaign

French prosecutors have launched an investigation into allegations of illegal contributions to Nicolas Sarkozy's 2007 presidential campaign.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy

Sarkozy has denied all the allegations of accepting money illegally

French prosecutors have opened an investigation into allegations that President Nicolas Sarkozy's 2007 election campaign received illegal funds from the country's richest woman, Liliane Bettencourt.

The prosecutor's office in the Paris suburb of Nanterre was following up on claims made by a former accountant of Bettencourt that the billionaire's financial advisor gave 150,000 euros ($188,000) in cash to Eric Woerth, treasurer for Sarkozy's UMP party and now also labor minister.

The limit for donations to political parties in France is 7,500 euros.

The former accountant, Clair Thibout, told police on Monday that Woerth received the money in early 2007 during the country's presidential campaign.

She also said she had been involved in withdrawing the funds in cash to be given in unmarked envelopes to Woerth as a donation to the UMP party.

News website Mediapart, which originally broke the story, has quoted Thibout as saying that Sarkozy also received envelopes of cash from the family.

L'Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt

Bettencourt is alleged to have given the UMP 150,000 euros

They were the first allegations connecting Sarkozy directly with a scandal over Woerth's ties to the billionaire.

President hits back

Sarkozy has denied the claims that his party received secret cash from the 87-year-old Bettencourt, who is heiress of the L'Oreal cosmetics empire, and said the reports were an effort to smear him.

Allies of the embattled French president have hit back, accusing elements of the country's media, particularly Mediapart, of "fascist" tactics.

"This notorious site's behavior recalls that of certain newspapers in the 1930s," Industry Minister Christian Estrosi told France Info radio, in a reference to fascist political currents in pre-war France.

Woerth, meanwhile, has blamed what he called "a political plot orchestrated by the Socialist Party."

Author: Darren Mara (AFP/AP)
Editor: Michael Lawton

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