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Sarkozy defends minister, himself

world Updated: Jul 13, 2010 10:08 IST
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French President Nicolas Sarkozy tried to put out a damaging political firestorm by defending late Monday his beleaguered minister for labour and social affairs, Eric Woerth.

Responding during an hour-long interview on France 2 television to weeks of allegations that have severely damaged his standing with the French people, Sarkozy said, "Eric Woerth is an honest man, he is a competent man, he is a man who has my complete trust".

Woerth has been accused by a former accountant of L'Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt of accepting an illegal contribution from Bettencourt of 150,000 euros ($189,000) for Sarkozy's 2007 election campaign.

Woerth is the treasurer of Sarkozy's UMP party. He has repeatedly denied the charge.

Questioned about that accusation, Sarkozy avoided a direct answer, saying instead that the allegations were part of a long-term campaign by his political opponents to derail his attempts to reform the country.

Woerth is also accused of conflict of interest because his wife, Florence, worked until recently for a company that managed Bettencourt's wealth.

Sarkozy cited a report by a finance ministry investigating body, the IGF, made public Sunday, that cleared Woerth of having intervened in the tax affairs of Europe's richest woman.

"Eric Woerth has been washed clean of all suspicion," the president said. "The ILG concluded that he never intervened in the fiscal affairs of Madame Bettencourt."

However, the opposition Socialists charged that the report was not made by an independent body.

Party spokesman Benoit Hamon said Monday, "We are asking the administration to investigate itself. It's not up to the finance ministry to look into the affair. It is up to the judicial system."

Sarkozy also said that he would appoint a bilateral commission to draw up a new law regarding conflict of interest, and he advised Woerth to resign from his position as treasurer of the UMP.

"I told him that I wanted him to devote himself exclusively to the reform of the pension system," Sarkozy said. "My advice is that he give up this position."

Sarkozy confirmed that Woerth would continue to be his pointman for the reform of France's pension system, which he described Monday as "essential." It seeks to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62 by 2018.

The pension reform bill is scheduled to be presented to the cabinet on Tuesday. Sarkozy said it would be voted on at the end of October.

Sarkozy also denied ever having benefited from illegal political contributions by the Bettencourt family.

Bettencourt's former accountant said that her employer and her late husband habitually gave envelopes filled with cash to conservative politicians, and that Sarkozy "possibly" also benefited from their largesse.

The many scandals have taken a toll on the president's standings, with recent polls showing that only one of three French adults approve of his performance.

A French prosecutor has opened three separate investigations into various aspects of the scandal, including one focusing on the allegations of illegal party financing and one on tax evasion and money laundering by the Bettencourts or their advisers.