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French minister eager to speak to corruption probe

Sun, 07/11/2010 - 4:13am
The Associated Press

France's labor minister says he wants to speak with investigators soon to clear his name in a snowballing scandal that has destabilized President Nicolas Sarkozy's government.

The Le Journal du Dimanche Sunday newspaper quoted Labor Minister Eric Woerth as saying he is "at the disposal of police and the justice system."

An inquiry into the affair "is a good thing, it allows you to tell the truth," he said.

Woerth faces pointed questions about his links to L'Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt amid a scandal over her fortune and questions about campaign contributions.

Sarkozy has strongly backed Woerth, who is in charge of his unpopular pension reform program to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62. In doing so, the president has faced dismal approval ratings and has strained to keep his government and conservative party from unraveling.

One facet of the scandal focuses on allegations of tax evasion. Bettencourt's financial adviser has acknowledged that she kept euro78 million ($97 million) in two foreign accounts and has promised to get her affairs in order.

Woerth's wife worked at a firm that helped manage Bettencourt's fortune but quit when the scandal broke. Woerth himself was budget minister until months ago, leading a high-profile crackdown against tax dodging. The couple have denied any conflict of interest.

The affair took a new twist last week into the issue of political party financing. Woerth, in addition to his governmental duties, has long been the treasurer of Sarkozy's UMP party.

Bettencourt's former accountant told an online news outlet and French investigators that the heiress' financial adviser gave euro150,000 in cash to Woerth to contribute to Sarkozy's 2007 presidential campaign.

Both Woerth and Sarkozy have strongly denied the allegation but French prosecutors have opened a preliminary investigation into the party financing claims.

Separately, an intergovernmental financial inspection agency is investigating Bettencourt's tax history.

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