Sarkozy denies illegal campaign cash

2011-08-31 20:00

Paris - French President Nicolas Sarkozy's office vigorously denied claims in a new book that he personally took undeclared campaign cash from the heiress to the L'Oreal cosmetics fortune five years ago - claims that come just as the race for next year's presidential elections is heating up.

Sarkozy's allies suggested the accusations are a campaign ploy against the unpopular president. Similar accusations first surfaced last year.

Still, questions about how Sarkozy financed his 2007 campaign could stain his likely bid for re-election in April and May. Critics have long deemed the conservative leader too cozy with the rich, criticism that carries particular sting now that the French economy is stalling and many of his supporters are disillusioned with his leadership.

The leader of France's main opposition party, Socialist Martine Aubry, called for a new investigation into whether Sarkozy received illegal campaign cash from Liliane Bettencourt, Europe's richest woman.

An accountant for Bettencourt said a year ago that she gave €50 000 in cash in 2007 to Sarkozy's party treasurer for the presidential campaign - well beyond the €4 600 legal limit on individual donations. The accusations surfaced during a series of investigations into the heiress' finances.

A book being released on Thursday suggests that Sarkozy himself received undeclared campaign money.

The book, Sarko m'a tuer ("Sarko killed me"), quotes investigating judge Isabelle Prevost-Desprez as saying a witness she questioned "told me that he had seen cash handed over to Sarko," a nickname used for Sarkozy.

Prevost-Desprez says, however, that the comment came outside the formal questioning and wasn't recorded in judicial documents.

Political pressure

Prevost-Desprez was later taken off the case. The book quotes her as saying she came under political pressure and that witnesses were afraid of testifying because the case is so sensitive for Sarkozy.

Prevost-Desprez could not be reached for comment on Wednesday. One of the book's authors, Fabrice Lhomme told The Associated Press that the judge verified the passages quoting her before it was published.

The book does not say how much cash was handed over.

Sarkozy's office called the claim "scandalous, unfounded and untrue".

Government spokesperson Valerie Pecresse said that "the approaching presidential campaign should not be the occasion for all kinds of slanderous accusations.

"I think the timing is dubious," Pecresse told reporters on Wednesday.

Aubry, who is seeking the Socialist presidential nomination to try to unseat Sarkozy, said on BFM television on Wednesday, "I hope... that a new investigation will be opened".

The overall investigation into Bettencourt's finances is still under way, and now being led by a magistrate in Bordeaux.