French President Nicolas Sarkozy on Tuesday vehemently denied new accusations of illegal party financing that are threatening to overshadow his re-election campaign.

"/> French President Nicolas Sarkozy on Tuesday vehemently denied new accusations of illegal party financing that are threatening to overshadow his re-election campaign.

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NICOLAS SARKOZY

Sarkozy denies 2007 illegal campaign funding

French President Nicolas Sarkozy on Tuesday vehemently denied new accusations of illegal party financing that are threatening to overshadow his re-election campaign.

Sarkozy denies 2007 illegal campaign funding
World Economic Forum

An investigation into alleged illegal financing of Sarkozy’s 2007 campaign by L’Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt is gathering momentum alongside campaigning for the two-round presidential election in April and May.

But the right-winger on Tuesday again denied any wrong-doing, saying that in 2007 his campaign funding “was contested by no-one”.

“The campaign funding commission certified the accounts and said ‘there isn’t a centime whose origin is in doubt, there isn’t an expense for which one doesn’t know where payment comes from,'” he told Canal+ television.

Sarkozy said he was not surprised by the resurgence of the illegal funding claims, adding that in the run-up to an election a few “stink bombs” were always thrown.

This drew outrage from Socialist candidate Francois Hollande’s camp.

“To say that these are stink bombs is an insult to the justice system,” said Jean-Marc Ayrault, a top Hollande advisor and leader of the Socialist parliamentary group.

Green candidate and former prosecutor Eva Joly last week called for Sarkozy to “give up his immunity (as head of state) and go and explain himself”.

Investigating magistrate Jean-Michel Gentil has cited two dubious withdrawals of €400,000 ($530,000) each from Swiss bank accounts by an intermediary to Bettencourt’s close aide Patrice de Maistre.

On March 23rd Gentil charged de Maistre with several alleged crimes and ordered him detained.

The first withdrawal was made on February 5th, 2007, two days before a meeting between de Maistre and Eric Woerth, who was at the time treasurer of Sarkozy’s first successful campaign.

Woerth later became labour minister but resigned in 2010 as the campaign financing probe gathered pace. In 2011 police carried out searches of his home and of the ruling UMP party’s office in connection with the case.

Bettencourt’s accountant, Claire Thibout, has testified to having been asked a number of times in 2007 to provide batches of €150,000 to Woerth.

The second questionable withdrawal was made on April 26th, 2007 — four days after the first round of the presidential election and over a week ahead of the second round on May 6th that Sarkozy went on to win.

On April 26th, former Bettencourt confidante and photographer Francois-Marie Banier wrote in his diary that the heiress told him: “De Maistre told me that Sarkozy had asked for money again. I said yes.”

But Le Monde newspaper later quoted Banier as seeking to play down the significance of his diary entry when he was interviewed by judge Gentil.

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NICOLAS SARKOZY

Leaders Sarkozy and Juppé stumble in race for Elysée

Right-wing candidates for the French presidential election face off in the first round of a US-style primary on Sunday with former president Nicolas Sarkozy and ex-prime minister Alain Juppe fighting to avoid being knocked out by an outsider.

Leaders Sarkozy and Juppé stumble in race for Elysée
Alain Juppé and Nicolas Sarkozy. Photo: AFP

In a contest overshadowed by the election of Donald Trump in the United States, support for the early favourite Juppe has slipped and Francois Fillon, who served as prime minister under Sarkozy, has risen fast.

The right-wing nominating contest is crucial because with the French left divided, the winner is expected to go on to take the presidency in May, beating far-right leader Marine Le Pen in the runoff.

Juppe, 71, entered the two-month-long contest with polls showing him to be France's most popular politician, but his approach of playing the moderate against the fiery Sarkozy and the conservative Fillon appears to be backfiring.

Most polls now show Juppe and Sarkozy are neck-and-neck at around 30 percent, with Fillon close behind after making striking progress in recent weeks.

The two winners on Sunday will go through to the second round run-off a week later.

Two becomes three

“We were expecting a duel but in the end a three-way contest has emerged,” political scientist Jerome Jaffre said in Le Figaro newspaper on Thursday.

Many have noted that 62-year-old Fillon's rise had coincided with the publication of his latest book entitled “Beating Islamic totalitarianism”.

An often confused final TV debate of the seven candidates on Thursday offered few clues about the possible outcome, although viewers polled afterwards said Fillon had performed the strongest.

Sparks flew when Sarkozy was asked about fresh claims that he received millions in funding from the late Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi towards his 2007 campaign.

Sarkozy called the question “disgraceful” and refused to answer.

Turning to the Trump effect, the former president said a more isolationist America created “a fantastic opportunity for France and Europe to re-establish a leadership role” on issues including border security and the reform of the UN Security Council.

“The next five years will mark the return of France and Europe to the international scene. America won't be there to put us in the shade,” he said.

Juppe meanwhile said the Trump-era heralded a triple “shock” — in the areas of trade, defence and the environment.

A return to protectionism would be “a tremendous regression”, Juppe said, while warning Europe against being “naive” in its dealings with the United States.

The three leading candidates have similar programmes, underpinned by pledges to reinforce domestic security in a country still under a state of emergency following a series of jihadist attacks.

They also share a desire to reinforce European borders and reduce immigration, while tax cuts also loom large.

The choice will come down to style.

Sarkozy has emphasised his tough-guy credentials, saying it makes him a better choice to handle Trump than the mild-mannered Juppe.

Fillon, who is popular in the business world, has promised “radical” economic measures but is the most conservative of the three on social issues.

Another unknown factor in Sunday's first round is the number of left-wing voters prepared to pay two euros and sign a declaration that they subscribe to “the values of the centre and the right” to vote in the right-wing primary.

Those who do are expected to vote against 61-year-old Sarkozy, who remains a highly divisive figure in France four years after he left office.

When the right-wing candidate is chosen on November 27, it is expected to trigger an announcement from deeply unpopular Socialist President Francois Hollande on whether he intends to bid for re-election.

On Wednesday, Hollande's former economy minister Emmanuel Macron announced he would stand as an independent.

by AFP's Guy Jackson

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