Colin Randall – Daily Mail July 7, 2010
French president Nicolas Sarkozy has denied damaging new claims that he took cash donations from France’s richest woman.
Amid growing public disquiet about sleaze allegations, the Elysee reacted angrily to claims by a former bookkeeper of Liliane Bettencourt, a billionaire heiress and the biggest shareholder in the L’Oreal empire
Identified only as Claire T, the bookkeeper said it was a common practice for envelopes stuffed with euros, sometimes to the value of £160,000, to be handed to conservative politicians calling at the villa of Mrs Bettencourt, 87, and her late husband, Andre, in the Parisian suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine.
‘Politicians were constantly marching through the house, especially at election time,’ she told the Mediapart news website.
‘Dede (Andre Bettencourt) was a big giver. They all came to pick up their envelopes.’
Claire T claimed Mr Sarkozy, then mayor of Neuilly, was a regular caller at the house between 1998 and 2002.
She said she overheard private conversations because the future president had to speak loudly to make himself understood by the hard-of-hearing Bettencourts.
Before politicians visited, she said, she would withdraw large sums in cash from a bank in Paris’s 16th arrondissement, which were then packed into envelopes.
‘Nicolas Sarkozy used to get his envelope too,’ Claire T said. ‘It happened in one of the little ground-floor salons next to the dining room. It usually happened after the meal.
‘Everyone in the house knew that Sarkozy went to see the Bettencourts to pick up money.’
Mr Sarkozy denounced the allegation as ‘libel that aims only to smear, without the slightest basis in reality’.
He said: ‘I would so like it if the country could be passionate about the big problems such as health, pensions, or how we can create growth, instead of getting involved with the first slanderous horror which has only one goal: to bring people down without any element of truth.’
The latest development in a scandal over suspected tax evasion and conflicts of interest piles further pressure on France’s labour minister, Eric Woerth.
Claire T alleged she gave Mr Woerth, also treasurer of Mr Sarkozy’s UMP party, £125,000 in cash towards the 2007 presidential campaign fund.
Mr Woerth, whose wife worked for Mrs Bettencourt’s wealth manager until she resigned last month, has resisted opposition calls to stand down.
He denies all wrongdoing or any conflict of interest when he held parallel offices as party treasurer and, until March, budget minister. He went on peak-time French television last night to denounce the accusations as ‘scandalous and intolerable’ and insist that he had no intention of resigning.
He said: ‘I did not receive a single euro illegally.’
A recent opinion poll found that nearly two-thirds of the French public believe their political leaders are corrupt.
Government MPs faced repeated questions in Parliament yesterday, before Opposition MPs stormed out when they were accused of ‘playing the game of the extreme right’.
‘I ask you in the name of a shared ideal of democracy, of the republic, not to play the game of the extreme right,’ Budget Minister Francois Baroin said, prompting the walkout.