French President Nicolas Sarkozy's former campaign manager and the heiress to the L'Oreal fortune are at the heart of an illegal campaign fund scandal. Sarkozy says the accusations are part of a smear campaign.
Sarkozy is facing pressure to reshuffle parts of his allegedly corrupt cabinet
A media report that Liliane Bettencourt, one of the world's richest women and the L'Oreal heiress, illegally contributed 150,000 euros ($189,000) to the campaign fund of French President Nicolas Sarkozy has unleashed a stream of denials in Paris.
The online news outlet Mediapart ran a story quoting a woman referred to as Claire T., who said she was asked to withdraw 150,000 euros as Bettencourt's bookkeeper. The money was meant to be given to Sarkozy's 2007 election campaign in cash through his campaign treasurer at the time, Eric Woerth.
In France, political contributions are limited to 7,500 euros per person per year, and only 150 euros may be in cash.
Never touched an illegal euro
Woerth, who is France's current labor minister, has denied that he accepted illegal money from Bettencourt or any other source.
Woerth is said to have taken illegal campaign cash
"I have never touched a euro, and my party has never touched a euro, that was not legal," he told television station ITele. "Everything is clear and clean."
Woerth added that he had no plans to resign over the scandal.
This is not the first time that Woerth has come under fire for his connection to Bettencourt. Woeth's wife, Florence, was until recently employed by the wealth management company that Bettencourt uses. Before she stepped down, Woerth was asked to resign from his post as labor minister due to a conflict of interest. Woerth has also been accused of helping Bettencourt avoid tax evasion charges.
Claire T.'s lawyer, Antoine Gillot, confirmed that his client had made a statement to police regarding the alleged illegal contributions.
Bettencourt's former bookkeeper said she did not personally deliver the money to Woerth, but that it was delivered by Bettencourt's wealth manager at the time.
L'Oreal heiress Bettencourt is one of the richest women in the world
She also accused Sarkozy of personally accepting cash contributions from Bettencourt at the L'Oreal heiress's home while he was mayor of the Paris suburb Neuilly.
Sarkozy flatly denied the accusations at a round-table on public health on Tuesday.
"I would love it so much if the country could excite itself over the big problems [such as health]," he said "rather than to get wrapped up in the first horror, a slander with only one goal, to smear with no basis in reality."
France's Prime Minister Francios Fillon has also weighed in on the issue, calling the accusations a "manhunt" at a press conference at the European Parliament in Strasbourg.
The scandal has led to calls for Sarkozy to push ahead planned restructuring measures in his cabinet as part of an effort to sweep out corruption.
Author: Matt Zuvela (dpa, AFP, Reuters)
Editor: Chuck Penfold