French prosecutors have opened a preliminary investigation into allegations that the country’s richest woman secretly funded French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s election campaign, a judicial official said on Wednesday.
The probe is a new blow to Sarkozy, who is rapidly losing support among voters stung by the global economic crisis.
Sarkozy denies claims that his 2007 campaign received 150,000 euros (US$188,000) in secret cash from 87-year-old L’Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt and calls the allegations an effort to smear him.
However, Sarkozy and Prime Minister Francois Fillon strained to keep their government and conservative party from unraveling on Wednesday amid a mushrooming scandal surrounding Bettencourt’s fortune.
The scandal, including suggestions of large-scale tax evasion, first ensnared Minister of Labor, Solidarity and Civil Service Eric Woerth and is now inching closer to the president himself.
On Wednesday, the prosecutor’s office in Nanterre, a Paris suburb, opened a preliminary investigation into statements by a former accountant for Bettencourt, Claire Thibout, the judicial official said.
Thibout told investigators that Bettencourt’s chief financial adviser gave 150,000 euros in cash to Woerth, who is also treasurer of Sarkozy’s conservative party UMP, in March 2007, the official said. Sarkozy was elected two months later.
Woerth’s wife until recently worked as an investment adviser to the L’Oreal heiress.
Opposition politicians are demanding that Woerth resign amid the Bettencourt scandal, but Sarkozy has vigorously defended him.
At a Cabinet meeting on Wednesday, the president urged his ministers to show their “sang-froid” (composure) and concentrate on work, government spokesman Luc Chatel said afterward.
Fillon tried to rally the UMP troops on Wednesday, calling for collective courage and saying they should not fall “hostage to rumors.”
Woerth, who has been treasurer for Sarkozy’s conservative party for eight years, said on Tuesday he was “outraged” by the claim and said he has “never received the slightest euro that wasn’t legal.”
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