PARIS (Reuters) - Police searched the homes of France’s richest woman and a close friend on Monday, shortly before President Nicolas Sarkozy was to be interviewed on television about a scandal that has rocked his government.
The searches of L’Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt, 87, and society photographer Francois-Marie Banier came amid calls for the appointment of an independent magistrate to investigate the case involving alleged illegal political donations and suspected tax evasion.
In all, police carried out seven raids on Monday, the public prosecutor’s office said. In a gesture of courtesy to the billionairess, the prosecutor’s spokeswoman described the police action at Bettencourt’s villa in the exclusive suburb of Neuilly as “a visit to take receipt of documents”.
A former bookkeeper for Bettencourt has alleged that the billionairess and her late husband made large illegal cash donations to conservative politicians, including for Sarkozy’s 2007 election campaign.
The minister at the centre of a furore over alleged illegal donations said for the first time he is considering resigning as treasurer of President Nicolas Sarkozy’s UMP party.
Critics have accused Labour Minister Eric Woerth of taking an illegal 150,000 euro cash donation from Liliane Bettencourt and questioned whether he abused his position as budget minister until March to shield her from a tax audit.
Woerth has denied receiving any illegal funds. The Finance Ministry’s tax inspectorate concluded in a report rushed out on Sunday that he had not intervened in the tax affairs of the Bettencourts, or their wealth manager or friends.
The government was quick to proclaim the investigation had cleared Woerth, even though it did not cover the bookkeeper’s allegation that he received illegal cash for Sarkozy’s campaign.
An opinion poll conducted before the report was released indicated most voters do not trust Woerth. The LH2 survey published on Monday found that 57 percent of respondents had no confidence in the minister and only 28 percent trusted him.
The funding scandal has driven Sarkozy’s approval rating to record lows, embarrassed the ruling centre-right and contributed to the government’s loss of a formerly ultra-safe parliamentary seat in a by-election on Sunday.
Woerth was treasurer of Sarkozy’s campaign and remained UMP treasurer while serving as budget minister in charge of tax matters, and his wife worked for Bettencourt’s wealth manager, prompting accusations of conflicts of interest.
The public prosecutor in charge of the probes, Philippe Courroye, a personal friend of Sarkozy’s, rejected suggestions that he had been chosen to bury the case.
“The investigation will be conducted as always with concern for procedural rigour, respect for rights, and to reveal the truth. All the evidence will be carefully verified,” he told the newspaper Le Monde.
In his television interview, Sarkozy is expected to try to refocus public attention on the pension reform and on budget savings. These are needed to bring down a public deficit equal to 8 percent of French gross domestic product and public debt of more than 80 percent of GDP.
The government plans to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62 by 2018, increase the contribution years required for a full pension, and raise civil servants’ contributions to private sector levels over a decade.
Editing by Kevin Liffey