SARKOZY CAMPAIGN DONATION PROBE OPENED
Prosecutors have launched an investigation into claims of illegal campaign funding for French President Nicolas Sarkozy, officials say.
The move follows allegations by a former accountant for France's richest woman, Liliane Bettencourt.
The accountant reportedly told police she was involved in channelling 150,000 euros (£124,000) to Mr Sarkozy's presidential campaign in 2007.
Mr Sarkozy dismissed claims surrounding the case as a “smear”.
The money was to be handed over to Eric Woerth, who ran Mr Sarkozy's campaign, according to Mrs Bettencourt's former accountant, Claire Thibout.
Her allegations were reported by the French website Mediapart after she made a statement to police on Monday.
Mr Sarkozy has been facing growing pressure over the affair, which is linked to a trial over the 87-year-old Mrs Bettencourt's estimated 17bn euro fortune that opened briefly last week before being adjourned.
Mr Woerth, who has denied the allegations, is currently minister for labour in Mr Sarkozy's government and is leading efforts to push through a major pension reform.
He has rejected calls for his resignation.
In a television interview on Tuesday he dismissed what he called “a political plot orchestrated by the Socialist Party”.
Earlier that day, opposition MPs had walked out of the French parliament after a minister accused them of extreme-right tactics for repeatedly asking about the allegations.
The comments were a reference to extreme-right newspapers that denounced the French political class in the 1930s.
Mr Woerth, who is treasurer for Mr Sarkozy's UMP party, has also come under scrutiny because his wife worked for the company that managed Mrs Bettencourt's fortune, and their names emerged in tapes secretly recorded by Mrs Bettencourt's butler.
The tapes have been offered as evidence in the trial that opened last week.
In the trial, Mrs Bettencourt's daughter Francoise is suing celebrity photographer Francois-Marie Banier, a close friend of her mother's, for allegedly exploiting her mental fragility to gain access to her fortune.
Mrs Woerth recently resigned from her position, and both she and her husband have denied any conflict of interests.