Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Sarko pleads his case as l'Oréal crisis deepens

The scandal that has rocked the French political class for weeks came to a dramatic climax last night, as French President Nicolas Sarkozy took to the airwaves to assure the public he is innocent of the charges leveled against him. The allegations are part of a complicated web that originally sprang from a lawsuit involving France’s richest woman, l'Oréal heiress Liliane Bettencourt.

In what the French press was calling the most important interview of his presidency, Sarkozy strongly denied, in vigorous and often aggressive terms, that his 2007 presidential campaign was partly financed by illegal donations of cash stuffed in brown envelopes from the 87-year-old heiress.

It is a scandal that has threatened to sink Sarko’s presidency, coming at a time when he is suffering the lowest poll ratings since he came to power and right before his big push to make major cuts to the French budget and raise the retirement age from 60 to 62. It is a push that has met with fierce opposition.

Sarko fought back hard against the allegations, saying they are a smear attempt by the left in order to discredit him so much that he is unable to make the conservative reforms he promised in the election. In the same breath, he accused the opposition Socialists of spreading rumours three months ago that he and his wife Carla Bruni were having marital difficulties. He called these “the worst lies of all”. Of course, it's hard to see how the Socialists, who can barely keep their own house in order as they grapple with high-profile dramas of their own, could have orchestrated the plot Sarkozy describes.

The allegations surfaced in a lawsuit in which Mrs. Betancourt’s daughter is suing a man who has received more than €1bn in gifts from the heiress. The daughter is accusing the Parisian dandy of taking advantage of her mother’s senile state. But in the course of thelawsuit, which involved secret tape recordings made by Madame Betancourt’s butler, things emerged that had nothing to do with the gifts. Betancourt and her accounts are on tape discussing ways she can avoid paying taxes by keeping her money in Swiss bank accounts. She is also advised that it would be in her interest to make political donations to Sarkozy’s centre-right party, the UMP. These donations may not only have been an effort to keep the tax authorities away from her, but may also have been well over the legally allowed amount.

But the case got dangerously close to the French president last week when allegations surfaced that Betancourt gave Eric Woerth, the treasurer of UMP, €150,000 in illegal cash donations, stuffed inside an envelope and destined for Sarkozy’s presidential campaign funds. Woerth's wife also worked for Bettencourt while he was budget minister. Though he has insisted on his innocence, Woerth resigned as UMP treasurer today.

Whether the allegations are true or not, they could not come at a worse time for the French president. There are fresh allegations of hypocracy being levelled against a government that desperately needs credibilty in order to make the drastic cuts they want. Now everyone is watching to see if Woerth also steps down as a minister. Woerth has been the architect of the plan to raise the French retirement age, which has been bitterly opposed by French unions. If Woerth leaves in disgrace, it could deal a fatal blow to the plan.

1 comment:

Jean said...

In general, I am not a fan of the UMP, but I must say that I have confidence in Sarkozy and Woerth. Woerth seemed very sincere. I think he had nothing to do with it. But now he must resign because there is suspicion around him. It's a shame.