Prosecutors ordered a police investigation into Wednesday claims that President Nicolas Sarkozy's campaign received illegal cash from France's richest woman, as the scandal spawned lawsuits and a fightback by his allies.
The prosecutor's office in the Paris suburb of Nanterre asked the fraud squad to look into the allegations by a former accountant for Liliane Bettencourt, heiress of the L'Oreal cosmetics empire.
Sarkozy's allies hit back, accusing the media of "fascist" tactics and dismissing as a smear campaign a scandal that has plunged him into the biggest crisis of his presidency.
French Prime Minister Francois Fillon launched a counter-offensive against the accusers.
A public prosecutor said he had ordered a police investigation into allegations of illegal political funding made by Bettencourt's former bookkeeper, Claire Thibout, in a statement to police and a media interview.
Thibout's lawyer confirmed she told police on Monday she had withdrawn 50,000 euros ($62,980) to be given to current Labour Minister Eric Woerth as part of an alleged 150,000 euro cash donation for Sarkozy's 2007 campaign. She said she did not witness the handover but was told of it.
Police picked up Thibout in provincial France on Wednesday and brought her back to Paris for further questioning, her lawyer said. The newspaper Le Monde said on its website that police had also found ledgers in which she says she recorded cash withdrawals.
"The prosecutor has opened a preliminary investigation into the allegations of the bookkeeper Claire Thibout," a spokeswoman for Nanterre prosecutor Philippe Courroye said.
Flanked by leaders of both houses of parliament, Fillon told ruling UMP party lawmakers: "A reshuffle is not our political priority. I won't allow the government of France to be destabilised by those who seek to preach."
Woerth, at the centre of the storm in his double role as a cabinet member and UMP treasurer, said in a statement he had filed a lawsuit for defamation over the allegations of illegal campaign funding. He did not say whether individuals were named in the complaint.
Government backers flooded the airwaves to support Woerth, reject calls for his resignation and blame the whole affair on a website that has published a string of disclosures and on the Socialists who have pressed in parliament for explanations.
Xavier Bertrand, leader of the UMP party, called the Mediapart website "a site that uses fascist methods", accusing it of publishing recordings of private conversations between Bettencourt and her wealth manager he said were taped illegally. A court authorised the website on July 1 to continue publishing the audio tapes.
Despite isolated calls for Woerth to resign, or for Sarkozy to bring forward a cabinet reshuffle planned for October, the president seems determined to tough it out in the hope that the story will die away during the summer holidays.
Budget Minister Francois Baroin said he expected to receive on Friday a report from Finance Ministry inspectors on Woerth's role in Bettencourt's tax affairs, which the government expects will clear him of any impropriety.
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Güncelleme Tarihi: 08 Temmuz 2010, 11:29