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
Arts and Entertainment
Brendan O'Carroll as Agnes Brown in the 2014 Mrs Brown's Boys Christmas special
tvCould Mrs Brown's Boys have taken lead for second year?
News
Members and supporters of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) community walk with a rainbow flag during a rally in July
news
Sport
Chelsea midfielder Cesc Fabregas
footballChelsea vs West Ham live kicks off coverage of all 10 of Boxing Day matches
News
peopleIt seems you can't silence Katie Hopkins, even on Christmas Day...
PROMOTED VIDEO
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Jack O'Connell stars as Louis Zamperini in Angelina Jolie's Unbroken
film review... even if Jack O'Connell is excellent
Arts and Entertainment
Madonna is not in Twitter's good books after describing her album leak as 'artistic rape and terrorism'
music14 more 'Rebel Heart' tracks leaked including Pharrell Williams collaboration
News
news
Arts and Entertainment
Wolf (Nathan McMullen), Ian (Dan Starky), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), Santa Claus (Nick Frost) in the Doctor Who Christmas Special (BBC/Photographer: David Venni)
tvOur review of the Doctor Who Christmas Special
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executive- City of London, Old Street

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executiv...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: An international organisa...

Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwickshire

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwicksh...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager/Marketing Controller (Financial Services)

£70000 - £75000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager/Marketi...

Day In a Page

A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

Christmas without hope

Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

The 'Black Museum'

After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

Chilly Christmas

Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all