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Sarkozy defends minister from funding claims

By the CNN Wire Staff
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French politics mired in accusations
  • President Sarkozy defends minister from allegations of illegal campaign contributions
  • Calls Eric Woerth an "honest man"
  • Police are investigating whether L'Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt gave money illegally
  • Comes as a trial involving Bettencourt is underway
  • France
  • Nicolas Sarkozy
  • L'Oreal SA

(CNN) -- French President Nicolas Sarkozy on Monday defended his labor minister amidst of allegations of illegal campaign contributions.

Minister Eric Woerth is an honest man and has all of his confidence, Sarkozy said.

The president's defense comes as French police investigate whether L'Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt secretly funded Sarkozy's election campaign. According to Bettencourt's former bookkeeper, Claire Thibout, the money went into the campaign via Woerth.

Thibout alleged in an interview this week that Sarkozy's party, the UMP, received illegal campaign donations in cash from the heiress and her late husband in 2007.

Thibout told the French investigative website Mediapart, in an interview published Tuesday, that the campaign received 150,000 euros (nearly $190,000 U.S.) in cash from the Bettencourts, well above the 7,500-euro (about $9,500) limit permitted for donations to political parties.

She said she had personally withdrawn 50,000 euros (about $63,000) from a Bettencourt account sometime in the spring of 2007. The money went to the campaign, through Woerth, she said.

On Monday, Sarkozy said Woerth "is a deeply honest man who has suffered a terrible situation of lies."

The allegations, Sarkozy said, "are such a waste of time when we have so many things to do."

Last week, police raided two locations linked to Bettencourt -- the home of her financial adviser, Patrice de Maistre, and the offices of the Clymene company, which manages Bettencourt's family fortune.

Sarkozy and Woerth have denied the allegations.

The investigation, and the allegations that sparked them, come on the sidelines of a high-profile trial in Paris involving Bettencourt, who is France's richest woman.

The heiress's daughter accuses a photographer, Francois-Marie Banier, of bilking the 87-year-old Bettencourt out of a billion euros that she allegedly gave to him. The daughter says her mother is not mentally competent to handle her own affairs and took the case to court to recover the money.

Bettencourt and Banier have known each other for years.

The trial is on hold while officials investigate secret recordings that emerged last month on the investigative website Mediapart.

Banier would face up to three years in prison and a 75,000 euro (nearly $95,000) fine if he's convicted at the trial, which is being held at a court in the Paris suburb of Nanterre.