Sarkozy took illegal cash from L'Oréal heiress, claims judge

New book rekindles speculation about corruption in run-up to 2007 election

Paris

A judge will today accuse President Nicolas Sarkozy of accepting illegal cash contributions to his 2007 election campaign from France's wealthiest woman.

The accusation, levelled in a new book, threatens to launch an explosive new season of last summer's long-running politico-financial soap opera known as "The Bettencourt Affair".

Judge Isabelle Prévost-Desprez tells the authors of the investigative book that pressure from the Elysée Palace forced her to be removed from her inquiries into political aspects of the affair. Earlier, she said she had received evidence from an eyewitness that Mr Sarkozy accepted a cash payment in 2007 from the L'Oréal heiress, Liliane Bettencourt, now 88.

Under French law, individual campaign donations are limited to €7,500 (£6,626), of which only €150 may be given in cash. Another witness in the Bettencourt affair claimed last summer that cash payments had been made to Mr Sarkozy but later withdrew her accusation.

The judge's new claim was dismissed yesterday by leading Sarkozy allies as politically motivated. The Elysée Palace said: "These allegations are scandalous, unfounded and untruthful."

Opposition politicians, scenting political and electoral if not legal blood, demanded an independent inquiry. François Hollande, front-runner for the Socialist nomination to challenge Mr Sarkozy in the presidential election next spring, said the book added to suspicions that the Elysée Palace had interfered in the judicial system.

The accusations by Judge Prévost-Desprez appear in a book by two investigative journalists from the Le Monde newspaper, Fabrice Lhomme and Gérard Davet. Sarko m'a tuer (Sarko Killed Me) traces the experiences of half a dozen people who claim their careers have been wrecked or derailed by the President for political or personal reasons since 2007.

Judge Prévost-Desprez, president of the 15th chamber of the tribunal of Nanterre, to the west of Paris, says she has been "blacklisted" by the Elysée and her career sidelined.

While investigating the political aspects of the Bettencourt affair, she said she was struck by the "fear" exhibited by witnesses called to give evidence on alleged financial dealings between Ms Bettencourt and Mr Sarkozy's centre-right party, the Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP).

One of them was Ms Bettencourt's former nurse, who refused to give damning evidence in her statement but made revelations off the record. "Liliane Bettencourt's nurse told my stenographer, after being questioned by me: 'I saw cash payments to Sarkozy, but I couldn't say it in my statement'," Judge Prévost-Desprez is quoted as saying.

The Bettencourt affair began as a family quarrel between the billionairess and her only child, Françoise Meyers-Bettencourt. A society photographer, François-Marie Banier, who had befriended Ms Bettencourt over many years, was accused of taking advantage of her age to take over €1bn in cash, bequests, art works and insurance policies. This aspect of the affair has now been settled out of court, although mother and daughter are once again quarrelling in public.

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