Sarkozy in L’Oreal heiress cash scandal

Allegations of illegal donations
from France’s richest woman plunged Nicolas Sarkozy into the biggest crisis of
his presidency, despite protests he is the victim of a smear campaign.

The French government reacted
angrily to reports police had interviewed a witness over claims his
presidential campaign received an illegal contribution of $189 thousand in cash
from L’Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt.

Sarkozy faces mounting pressure to
address the allegations directly and calls for a clear-out of tainted
ministers, including embattled Labour Minister Eric Woerth, who is at the
centre of the scandal.

“I would love it so much if
the country could excite itself over the big problems … rather than to get
wrapped up in the first horror, a slander with only one goal, to smear with no
basis in reality,” Sarkozy said.

Prime Minister Francois Fillon was
more direct.

“This is slander, this is a
systematic destabilisation campaign,” Fillon told a news conference at the
European parliament in Strasbourg.

“We will not be intimidated by
these methods and I want to say that those who are involved in this manhunt, or
slanderous accusations, should ask themselves if they still have a
conscience,” he said.

Sarkozy’s approval ratings are at
their lowest levels since his 2007 election and he faces an uphill battle to
get reforms back on track before seeking re-election in 2012.

An opinion poll by the Ifop agency
found 69 per cent of French voters would like to see an immediate cabinet

The investigative website Mediapart
interviewed a former Bettencourt accountant, identified as Claire T., who
alleged the heiress often gave cash to right-wing politicians.

According to Mediapart, the
accountant also alleges that Sarkozy personally received envelopes of cash
after dinners at Bettencourt’s mansion when he was mayor of the Paris suburb of