BRUSSELS, Belgium — Already behind in opinion polls, French President Nicolas Sarkozy has seen the whiff of scandal drift closer to his campaign for re-election after prosecutors opened a formal investigation into a close aide, on allegations of illegal campaign financing.
The investigation into Eric Woerth is linked to claims that he received a cash payment of 150,000 euros for Sarkozy’s successful 2007 presidential bid, from billionaire heiress Lilianne Bettencourt, 89, France’s richest woman, whose father founded the cosmetics company L’Oreal.
Such a payment would be illegal under French law. Political donations to candidates are limited to 4,600 euros.
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Woerth was treasurer of Sarkozy’s UMP party back in 2007. He served as Labor Minister until 2010 when he resigned amid accusations of financial wrongdoing. However, he remains a member of the French parliament and was expected to be part of Sarkozy campaign team in the run up to the spring presidential elections.
He was given a nine hour grilling by investigators on Thursday.
The French media has been buzzing with stories linked to Bettencourt’s $23 billion fortune since 2007, when the heiress’ daughter accused a photographer and others in her mother’s entourage of extorting vast sums of money from the increasingly frail billionaire.
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As the press began to dig into the family’s affairs, allegations of the illegal campaign financing began to emerge, and Woerth came under scrutiny. His wife worked for the family and he is also accused of using his political influence to secure a prestigious French award, the Legion d’Honneur, for the man who managed Bettencourt’s fortune.
Sarkozy has always denied any link to the Bettencourt affair, but the investigation into Woerth comes at a bad time for the president. Opinion polls show him up to 7 points behind his main challenger, the Socialist Francois Holland, ahead of the first round of presidential voting on April 22.
“For Nicolas Sarkozy, who is preparing his official entry into the presidential campaign, this is a hard blow and the symbolism is potent,” the daily newspaper Le Monde wrote Friday.
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