Sarkozy protests his innocence in TV interview

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The Independent Online

President Nicolas Sarkozy last night flatly denied that he had accepted illegal campaign funds in cash from France's richest woman.

In his first public comments on the tangled L'Oréal family feud and political funding affair, Mr Sarkozy accused political opponents, and parts of the media, of concocting "disgraceful" lies to try to derail his economic reform programme.

In a live, prime-time interview on France 2 – his first television appearance for six months – President Sarkozy tried to appear, by turns, outraged but calm and unmoved by the storm of political controversy which has engulfed his government over the past few days.

Sitting on the terrace of the Elysée Palace, President Sarkozy said: "What a waste of our time... What a disgrace.

"We have had three weeks of calumnies. I was elected to put right those things which have been troubling France for years but reform upsets some people, some vested interests. Their response is, often enough, calumny. Three months ago there were the worst kind of rumours about my private life and that of my wife.

"Lies... Now, with the proposed pension reforms, they say that I have, for 20 years, been receiving envelopes of cash. What a disgrace !"

The former accountant of Liliane Bettencourt, 87, the largest share-holder in the cosmetics giant L'Oréal, said last week that the billionairess had given €150,000 (£125,000) in cash to President Sarkozy's 2007 presidential campaign. This is 20 times the legal limit for a personal contribution.

The accountant, Claire Thibaut, was also quoted by an investigative website as saying that Ms Bettencourt, and her late husband, had often given envelopes stuffed with cash to President Sarkozy when he was the mayor of Neuilly-sur-Seine, in west Paris. Ms Thibaut has since disowned these remarks but stands by the allegation that Ms Bettencourt gave the Sarkozy 2007 campaign treasurer, Eric Woerth, €150,000 in cash.

In his comments last night, President Sarkozy did not specifically deny the allegations about the funding of his 2007 presidential campaign but dismissed suggestions that his party treasurer, Mr Woerth, had acted improperly. The allegations are the subject of three separate criminal investigations. Hours before the president spoke, police raided the home of Ms Bettencourt and her close friend, the celebrity photographer, François-Marie Banier, 63. These raids are said to have been connected with allegations of systematic tax evasion.

Tapes of Ms Bettencourt's conversations with advisers, secretly recorded by her former butler, suggest that President Sarkozy tried to intervene, on Ms Bettencourt's side, in a lengthy legal battle with her only child, Françoise Bettencourt-Meyers.

Political opponents have suggested that the Sarkozy government – and specifically Mr Woerth when budget minister – ignored Ms Bettencourt's alleged tax evasion because of her past generosity to the Sarkozy campaign. An investigation by an official financial watchdog yesterday cleared Mr Woerth of helping the billionairess to evade taxes.

Mr Woerth, now employment minister, said that he was "extremely relieved" after suffering an "avalanche of insults". He hinted, however, that he intends to resign as treasurer of Mr Sarkozy's centre-right party to avoid further suspicion of conflict of interest.

Ms Bettencourt-Meyers alleges that her mother is "mentally weak" and has been bamboozled, over many years, into handing almost €1bn in cash, paintings, property and financial assets to Mr Banier.

A trial of Mr Banier for "abuse of weakness" began ten days ago. It was adjourned sine die to allow the presiding judge to investigate the contents of the 100 hours of conversations taped by Ms Bettencourt's former butler.

The tapes revealed, among other things, that Mr Woerth had asked for a job for his wife, Florence, in the company which manages the Bettencourt fortune.

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