L'Oreal lady cash scandal strikes Sarkozy

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By The Telegraph Online
  • Published 7.07.10
Liliane Bettencourt,
Nicolas Sarkozy

Paris, July 6 (Agencies): French President Nicolas Sarkozy was tonight fighting the biggest scandal to engulf his government yet following allegations that his party received illegal campaign cash in envelopes from the richest woman in the country.

The allegations were made by a former bookkeeper for Liliane Bettencourt, the main shareholder in the cosmetics giant L’Oreal, and raised pressure on Sarkozy to bring forward a reshuffle of his government.

The bookkeeper, named only as Claire T., told the news website Mediapart she had been involved in withdrawing 150,000 euros ($200,000) in cash to be given to the current labour minister, Eric Woerth, in unmarked envelopes as a donation to Sarkozy’s 2007 election campaign.

Claire T.’s lawyer confirmed that she had given a statement to police on Monday making the allegation. Bettencourt’s lawyer could not immediately be reached for comment.

Sarkozy said Woerth was a victim of calumny “without the slightest reality” and he wished people would take more interest in big issues such as health care and pensions rather than in “those who create scandals”.

Woerth, who is treasurer of the ruling centre-right UMP party and was treasurer of Sarkozy’s 2007 campaign, denied taking a single euro in illegal donations.

The minister is leading a major pensions reform and is a key ally of the President, whose approval rating hit an all-time low of 26 per cent last week amid sleaze allegations involving several ministers.

Two junior ministers had resigned on Sunday after being accused of wasting taxpayers’ money on cigars and a private jet.

French law limits donations to parties to 7,500 euros per person per year. Only 150 euros may be given in cash.

Claire T. said she had not handed the money to Woerth personally but had given it to Bettencourt’s wealth manager, who had told her he would make the handover.

Woerth’s wife worked for the wealth manager until last month.

Mediapart, which broke news last month of secret recordings of conversations between Bettencourt and her wealth manager, quoted the bookkeeper as saying Sarkozy had been one of several politicians who regularly received envelopes of cash directly from the billionairess and her late husband while Sarkozy was mayor of the Paris suburb of Neuilly in the 1980s and 90s.

Asked about this allegation, an official in Sarkozy’s office said: “That’s totally false.”

Mediapart quoted Claire T. as saying she had collected large sums in cash from a bank in Paris’s 16th district over many years, which the Bettencourts used to give to politicians who visited them at their villa in the exclusive suburb.

“Politicians were constantly marching through the house, especially at election time .... They all came to pick up their envelopes, sometimes as much as 100,000 euros, or even 200,000 euros,” the bookkeeper was quoted as saying.

She said Sarkozy had been a regular visitor when he was mayor, and she had overheard their conversations because the Bettencourts were quite deaf and he had to speak loudly.

“Nicolas Sarkozy used to get his envelope too. It happened in one of the little ground floor salons next to the dining room. It usually happened after the meal,” Mediapart quoted Claire T. as saying. “Again, everyone in the house knew that Sarkozy too went to see the Bettencourts to pick up money.”