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Sarkozy defends minister against campaign finance scandal

French President Nicolas Sarkozy has seen dropping popularity as a finance scandal plagues a key government minister. But in a televised interview on Monday, he staunchly defended himself and his allies.

Nicolas Sarkozy

Sarkozy says the scandal was timed as a political attack

Appearing in an interview on national television Monday night, French President Nicolas Sarkozy defended his scandal-stricken minister of labor and social affairs Eric Woerth and called for a conflict of interest inquiry to put to rest the criticism that has ensued.

"Eric Woerth is an honest man, a competent man," Sarkozy told France 2 television. "He enjoys my full confidence."

Sarkozy has been hit by a campaign finance scandal surrounding Woerth, in which a former accountant of billionaire L'Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt accused him of accepting an illegal 150,000 euro ($190,000) donation for Sarkozy's election campaign in 2007.

The accountant also accused Bettencourt and her late husband of making several other illegal donations to conservative politicians.

In the interview, Sarkozy claimed that the scandal was timed to weaken his government as it prepares to embark on an ambitious and controversial reform of the nation's pension scheme, which Woerth is charged with leading.

Eric Woerth

Woerth is in charge of the government's unpopular pension reform

Sarkozy said he had asked Woerth to step down as treasurer of his ruling UMP party, but that Woerth would continue his leadership in the pension reform, which involves raising the retirement age from 60 to 62.

Broad span of scandal

Woerth's wife has also been caught up in the scandal. She had worked as a wealth manager for Bettencourt, raising questions of a conflict of interest, but quit after secretly taped conversations last month apparently revealed Bettencourt's plans to evade taxes.

Federal investigators on Sunday cleared Woerth of any involvement in the tax evasion scandal, but made no mention of the alleged illegal campaign donation.

Just hours before Sarkozy's address, police searched the home of 87-year-old Bettencourt, France's richest woman, in search of evidence in the scandal.

They also searched the home of photographer Francois-Marie Banier, whom Bettencourt's daughter has accused of taking advantage of the heiress' frailty by taking gifts worth 1 billion euros.

Author: Andrew Bowen (Reuters/AP/AFP/dpa)
Editor: Martin Kuebler

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