Election-funds inquiry edges nearer Sarkozy

French prosecutors have opened a preliminary investigation into allegations that the country's richest woman secretly funded President Nicolas Sarkozy's election campaign, a judicial official said yesterday.

The probe is a new blow to Mr Sarkozy, who is rapidly losing support among French voters stung by the global economic crisis.

Mr Sarkozy denies claims that his 2007 campaign received €150,000 (£125,000) in secret cash from the 87-year-old L'Oreal heiress, Liliane Bettencourt, and calls the allegations an effort to smear him.

But Mr Sarkozy and his prime minister strained yesterday to keep their government and conservative party from unravelling amid a mushrooming scandal surrounding Ms Bettencourt's fortune.

The scandal, including suggestions of large-scale tax evasion, first ensnared his labour minister and is now inching closer to the president himself. Yesterday, the prosecutor's office in the Paris suburb of Nanterre opened a preliminary investigation into statements by a former accountant for Ms Bettencourt, Claire Thibout, the judicial official said. The official was not authorised to be publicly named because the investigation is ongoing.

Ms Thibout told investigators that Ms Bettencourt's chief financial adviser gave €150,000 in cash to Eric Woerth, the treasurer of Mr Sarkozy's conservative party, UMP, in March 2007, the official said. Mr Sarkozy was elected two months later. Mr Woerth's wife until recently worked as an investment adviser to the L'Oreal heiress, and Mr Woerth himself is Mr Sarkozy's labour minister and in charge of an unpopular pension reform set to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62.

Opposition politicians are demanding that Mr Woerth resign amid the Bettencourt scandal, but Mr Sarkozy has vigorously defended him.

At a cabinet meeting yesterday, the president urged his ministers to show their "sangfroid" and concentrate on work, government spokesman Luc Chatel said afterward.

The prime minister, François Fillon, tried to rally the troops of his UMP party yesterday, calling for collective courage and saying they should not fall "hostage to rumours".

Mr Woerth, who has been treasurer for Mr Sarkozy's conservative party for eight years, said on Tuesday that he was "outraged" by the claim and said he has "never received the slightest euro that wasn't legal".

An intergovernmental financial inspection agency is also investigating Ms Bettencourt's tax file, and Budget Minister François Baroin said its report would be "on my desk [on] Friday". Ms Bettencourt is number 17 on Forbes magazine's list of the world's richest people.

Campaign finance scandals have dogged past French administrations. Former president Jacques Chirac must face trial over what investigators say was a fake jobs scheme while he was mayor of Paris that was meant to help finance his conservative party. Mr Chirac has denied wrongdoing. And a former prime minister, Alain Juppé, was convicted of party financing irregularities in 2004.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Experienced Bookkeeper - German Speaking - Part Time

£23000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This firm of accountants based ...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

£30000 - £38000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are a financial services c...

Ashdown Group: Field Service Engineer

£30000 - £32000 per annum + car allowance and on call: Ashdown Group: A succes...

Recruitment Genius: Sales & Marketing Co-Ordinator

£15000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Well established small company ...

Day In a Page

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

The acceptable face of the Emirates

Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk
Nepal earthquake: One man's desperate escape from Everest base camp after the disaster

Escape from Everest base camp

Nick Talbot was sitting in his tent when the tsunami of snow and rock hit. He was lucky to live, unlike his climbing partner just feet away...
Adopting high fibre diet could dramatically cut risk of bowel cancer, says study

What happened when 20 Americans swapped diets with 20 Africans?

Innovative study in the US produces remarkable results
Blake Lively and 'The Age of Adaline': Gossip Girl comes
of age

Gossip girl comes of age

Blake Lively is best known for playing an affluent teenager. Her role as a woman who is trapped forever at 29 is a greater challenge
Goat cuisine: Kid meat is coming to Ocado

Goat cuisine

It's loved by chefs, ethical, low in fat and delicious. So, will kid meat give lamb a run for its money?
Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

Aviation history is littered with grand failures

But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

Fortress Europe?

Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

Never mind what you're wearing

It's what you're reclining on that matters
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls