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Sarkozy's summer of scandals: Is the French president in trouble?

A French prosecutor is now investigating whether Liliane Bettencourt, heiress of the L’Oréal fortune, gave some $190,000 in illegal campaign contributions to French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

By Staff writer / July 7, 2010

French President Nicolas Sarkozy, center, welcomes his newly elected German counterpart Christian Wulff, left, at the Elysee Palace in Paris Wednesday.

Michel Spingler/AP

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Paris

A court case scandal involving the world’s third-richest woman and her daughter now threatens to engulf France’s highest elected official, President Nicolas Sarkozy. Allegations of corruption – as the president's approval ratings slide to a low of 26 percent – come on top of a string of other problems for Sarkozy.

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A French prosecutor today said he will probe whether Liliane Bettencourt, heiress of the L’Oréal fortune, gave some $190,000 in illegal contributions to Mr. Sarkozy’s 2007 presidential bid. A longtime accountant for Ms. Bettencourt told a French news website she participated in the cash transfer. She alleged Sarkozy took envelopes of cash as a dinner guest at the Bettencourt home two decades ago.

Just last week, Mr. Sarkozy’s trusted labor minister Eric Woerth received prominent attention after tapes made by a Bettencourt butler showed possible tax evasion crimes by Bettencourt at a time when Mr. Woerth’s wife was a key financial adviser to the 87-year old, whose worth is $20 billion, according to Forbes.

Now suddenly and sharply, early July is proving a nadir for Sarkozy and his high-energy political machine.

So far, little hard evidence has come to light to topple the French president, despite a salivating French press. Even tough critics like Jean-Francois Kahn point to a lack of any smoking guns. Sarkozy is instead seen as beleaguered by a surfeit of small scandals brought on partly by his cultivating of glamour and jet-set friends. But the French media are saying the Bettencourt scandal is becoming the Sarkozy crisis.

And the litany of Sarkozy concerns seems to grow daily:

  • On July 4, two of Sarkozy's junior ministers resigned after scandals involving the purchase of $15,000 in cigars on the public tab, and the use of government jets to fly around on dubious federal business trips to the Caribbean.
  • The palace is studiously avoiding the word “austerity,” even while it plans to cut some $45 billion from the government budget over three years.
  • Sarkozy is not getting along well with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, his key European partner, over coordinating economic policy.
  • France’s proud World Cup team deconstructed in South Africa in three miserable games that shook Paris and brought wailing in the streets.
  • Other smaller corruption allegations include misuse of grand federal apartments, and various salary schemes, such as $12,000 monthly extra allowance for ministers to write reports on “globalization.”

Socialist Party leader Ségolène Royal, who ran against Sarkozy in 2007, used the word “corrupt” to describe the dealings of the French government for the first time. Senior French political analyst Jean Daniel describes an “irrepressible malaise,” about the palace team. Meanwhile, ruling party politicians say the Jacobin sentiments of the media and opposition politicians are creating a political “highway for the far-right” in France.

Not even the first day of shooting for a new Woody Allen film, "Midnight in Paris," that will include appearances by France's first lady Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, is providing much of a distraction.

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