French President Nicolas Sarkozy's office vigorously denied claims in a new book that he personally took undeclared campaign cash from the heiress to the L'Oreal cosmetics fortune five years ago — claims that come just as the race for next year's presidential elections is heating up.
Sarkozy's allies suggested the accusations are a campaign ploy against the unpopular president. Similar accusations first surfaced last year.
Still, questions about how Sarkozy financed his 2007 campaign could stain his likely bid for re-election in April and May. Critics have long deemed the conservative leader too cozy with the rich, criticism that carries particular sting now that the French economy is stalling and many of his supporters are disillusioned with his leadership.
The leader of France's main opposition party, Socialist Martine Aubry, called for a new investigation into whether Sarkozy received illegal campaign cash from Liliane Bettencourt, Europe's richest woman.
An accountant for Bettencourt said a year ago that she gave €50,000 ($72,000) in cash in 2007 to Sarkozy's party treasurer for the presidential campaign — well beyond the €4,600 legal limit on individual donations. The accusations came during a series of investigations into the heiress' finances.
A book being released Thursday suggests that Sarkozy himself received undeclared campaign money.
'Timing is dubious'
The book, "Sarko m'a tuer" ("Sarko Killed Me"), quotes investigating judge Isabelle Prevost-Desprez as saying a witness she questioned "told me that he or she had seen cash handed over to Sarko," a nickname used for Sarkozy.
Prevost-Desprez says, however, that the comment came outside the formal questioning and wasn't recorded in judicial documents. The book does not say how much cash was handed over.
Prevost-Desprez was later taken off the case. The book quotes her as saying she came under political pressure and that witnesses were afraid of testifying because the case is so sensitive for Sarkozy.
Prevost-Desprez could not be reached for comment Wednesday. The book's authors said the judge verified the passages quoting her before it was published.
"This is about amounts of money which were not declared, money given outside the traditional channels," Gerard Davet, one of the book's two co-authors and an investigative journalist at Le Monde, told The Associated Press.
Sarkozy's office called the claim of illegal campaign cash "scandalous, unfounded and untrue."
Government spokeswoman Valerie Pecresse said that "the approaching presidential campaign should not be the occasion for all kinds of slanderous accusations.
"I think the timing is dubious," Pecresse told reporters Wednesday.
Aubry, who is seeking the Socialist presidential nomination to try to unseat Sarkozy, said on BFM television Wednesday, "I hope ... that a new investigation will be opened."
The overall investigation into Bettencourt's finances is still under way, and now being led by a magistrate in Bordeaux.
Author Davet said finding the truth is a challenge in this case.
The witnesses questioned by the judge "were frightened. They were very worried. Why? Because in France, the courts, the judicial system depends on the government," he said.
"We journalists, as well, have had big problems during the Bettencourt case. My apartment was burgled. My computer was stolen. And the secret service tried to learn who my sources were," Davet said.
Le Monde filed a lawsuit last year accusing Sarkozy's office of using counterintelligence services to identify a source leaking information about the investigation. Sarkozy's office said it had never given such instructions to an intelligence agency.
Jeffrey Schaeffer in Paris contributed to this report.