PARIS (Reuters) - President Nicolas Sarkozy denied allegations on Tuesday that his party received illegal campaign donations in cash from France’s richest woman via Labour Minister Eric Woerth as part of a vast system of patronage.
The allegation was made by a former bookkeeper for Liliane Bettencourt, main shareholder in the cosmetics giant L’Oreal, and raised pressure on Sarkozy to bring forward a reshuffle of his government, battered by sleaze allegations.
The bookkeeper, identified by a prosecutor’s spokesman as Claire Thibout, told the news website Mediapart she had been involved in withdrawing 150,000 euros ($200,000) in cash to be given to Woerth in unmarked envelopes as a donation to Sarkozy’s 2007 election campaign.
Thibout’s lawyer confirmed 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.”
In an emotional live television interview, Woerth denied the allegations, said he was victim of a “cabal” by the Socialist opposition and insisted he would not resign because he was innocent and the real target was Sarkozy.
“I never, never received a single illegal euro,” the center-right minister and treasurer of the ruling UMP party said, his voice quivering with anger. “Everything is false. It’s defamation.
“I am the minister who fought hardest against tax evasion. The Swiss resent me to death,” he said, referring to his stint in the budget ministry.
French law limits donations to parties to 7,500 euros per person per year. Only 150 euros may be given in cash.
Earlier, Socialist and Communist members walked out of parliament after a center-right minister accused the opposition of “playing the game of the extreme right” by asking repeatedly about the allegations during a question-and-answer session.
“These accusations are completely unacceptable,” Socialist floor leader Jean-Marc Ayrault told reporters. “When we ask for explanations, for clarification from the government, we are accused of playing the game of the extreme right.”
Woerth is leading a major pensions reform and is a key ally of the president, whose approval rating hit an all-time low of 26 percent last week amid sleaze allegations involving several ministers.
Thibout 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. He has already denied any conflict of interest between his roles as party treasurer and budget minister until March.
The wealth manager, Patrice de Maistre, was questioned by police on Tuesday and flatly denied Thibout’s version of events, a spokesman for the Nanterre public prosecutor said.
Leading members of Sarkozy’s party urged the president to bring forward a reshuffle planned for October and broadcast to the nation before he goes on his summer holiday on July 14.
Two junior ministers resigned on Sunday after being accused of wasting taxpayers’ money on cigars and a private jet.
“The president says he is in control of the timing, but Woerth is more and more under fire. It’s becoming politically difficult,” UMP lawmaker Jacques Myard told Reuters.
Another UMP parliamentarian, Marie-Anne Montchamp, said: “We are stuck in a crisis. There needs to be a reshuffle, and fast.”
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 Thibout, whom it identified only as 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.”
“Dede (Andre Bettencourt) liked to spread it around widely.”