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France

Bettencourt scandal cranks up pressure on Sarkozy

media French Labour Minister Eric Woerth is feeling the pressure Reuters

Who would have guessed that a row between the mother and daughter of France’s richest family would end up toppling ministers and even threaten the career of the president himself? Probably not Nicolas Sarkozy, who has himself been caught up in a spate of accusations arising from the so-called Bettencourt affair, which has also seen one of his star ministers come under heavy fire.

Sarkozy was accused on Tuesday of benefitting from illegal donations from L’Oréal heiress Lilianne Bettencourt, whose legal spat with her daughter has suddenly taken a political turn after providing the French media with several months of entertainment on the celebrity gossip level.

Will the Bettencourt scandal help the far right?

But Sarkozy is not in nearly as much trouble as his Labour Minister Eric Woerth, accused of conflict of interest while he was at finance. He was responsible for tracking down tax evaders at the same time as his wife is alleged to have helped Bettencourt hide millions in a Swiss bank account.

Woerth has yet to go the way of two junior ministers, Alain Joyandet and Christian Blanc, who were caught with their hands in the public till and persuaded to resign. Although their cases had nothing to do with heiresses and their photographer friends, they were thrown overboard in a move generally believed to be an attempt to demonstrate the government’s integrity.

To make matters worse, the scandal has broken while Sarkozy is trying to make a show of restraint, going so far as to call off the annual Bastille Day Elysée garden party in a Europe-wide climate of austerity.

At the moment the government’s strategy seems to be to circle the wagons and accuse its critics of being patsies for fascism.

Ministers are denouncing a “manhunt” and “libellous accusations”. Challenged by the opposition to reveal “the truth about a system based on connivance between the executive and the rich and powerful”, Justice Minister Michèle Alliot-Marie snapped: “Do you realise the harm you are doing to democracy? I beg you … don’t play the game of the extreme right.”

French politics no stranger to scandals

And UMP Secretary-General Xavier Bertrand accused the Mediapart website, which carried the accusations against Sarkozy, of using “fascist methods”.

But, as the pressure mounts, divisions on how to handle the crisis are emerging and are likely to deepen.

“We’re going through a very hard, a very difficult period,” admitted François Copé, the leader of the parliamentary group of Sarkozy’s UMP, adding that “at this stage” the party should hold the line.

Copé does want Sarkozy to address the nation, although nothing of the kind is planned at the moment, according to the presidential palace.

The president is sticking by Woerth, who is in charge of his key pensions reform and hopes that a financial inspectors’ report due to be delivered on 9 July will clear his minister’s name.

Not all of his political allies think that Woerth should stay, according to the usually well-informed daily Le Monde.

“Only Nicolas Sarkozy thinks that Woerth can hold on,” it quotes an anonymous UMP official as saying.

“But the Labour Minister is on the verge of cracking,” he goes on. “He is no longer capable of championing pension reform.”

Other voices are calling for a reshuffle soon. They include Prime Minister François Fillon, who reportedly hopes that such a move can save his political bacon.

After this year’s poor regional election results, Sarkozy promised a reshuffle once pension reform was out of the way, that is to say the autumn. If it takes place then, Fillon might well face the sack, paying the price for a better showing in opinion polls than the boss.

If the Sarkozy camp seems surprisingly relaxed, it may be because of the season. The long French holidays have begun and not even the left and the unions are likely to take to the streets before the rentrée, when life returns to normal in the autumn.

Meanwhile, the embarrassing revelations continue. The police have confirmed that at least one of Mediapart’s accusations is true. There was a withdrawal of 50,000 euros from Bettencourt’s branch of the BNP bank on 26 March 2007, as her former accountant, known as Claire T, told the site. They believe that an equivalent sum was withdrawn twice a month.

Whether there is substance to the story or not, Sarkozy is far from the first high-profile French politician to be accused of graft. Perhaps most famously, his predecessor Jacques Chirac has so far survived a series of allegations.

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