French police search home of Bettencourt's adviser

Nicolas Sarkozy (6 July 2010) Nicolas Sarkozy has dismissed claims surrounding the case as a "smear"

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Police have searched the house and office of the wealth manager of France's richest woman, as a probe into illegal political donations continues.

A former accountant for heiress Liliane Bettencourt claims she made large hand-outs to President Nicolas Sarkozy during his 2007 election campaign.

Patrice de Maistre, Ms Bettencourt's adviser, allegedly asked Claire Thibout to withdraw cash for her ex-employer.

Mr Sarkozy is under increasing pressure over the claims.

He and Mr de Maistre deny the allegations, with Mr Sarkozy dismissing them as part of smear campaign against him.

The scandal has also sparked calls for Labour Minister Eric Woerth, treasurer of the ruling party, to stand down.

He is accused of accepting the donations from Ms Bettencourt on behalf of Mr Sarkozy's campaign.

Mr de Maistre's lawyer said the search was to be expected under the circumstances.

"When you have an investigation of this size, several investigations, this type of search is not surprising," Pascal Wilhelm told Reuters news agency.

'No proof'

Ms Thibout says that, as an accountant for Ms Bettencourt, the heiress and her husband made illegal donations amounting to thousands of dollars in the run-up to Mr Sarkozy's election.

Police officers stand outside the offices of Patrice de Maistre, Friday, July 9, 2010 Mr de Maistre's lawyer said the search was to be expected

But on Thursday she denied making claims that Mr Sarkozy directly received envelopes of cash from Ms Bettencourt home in the Paris suburb of Neilly.

Government officials quickly claimed Mr Sarkozy was exonerated.

Ms Thibout was also quoted as saying that she could no longer recall the date in 2007 when she withdrew 50,000 euros (£42,000) in cash that she said was later given to Mr Woerth.

But she stood by claims made in an interview with news website Mediapart that Mr de Maistre had asked her to fetch the money and that it was added to 100,000 euros in cash withdrawn in Switzerland.

The limit for donations to political parties is set at 7,500 euros.

Ms Bettencourt's lawyer, Georges Kiejman, has said that "nothing proves" that she provided illegal campaign financing.

The allegations surfaced in connection with a trial over the estimated 17bn-euro fortune of Ms Bettencourt, whose father founded the cosmetics giant, L'Oreal.

Ms 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.

Mr Woerth has also come under scrutiny because his wife worked for the company that managed Ms Bettencourt's fortune.

Their names emerged in tapes secretly recorded by Mrs Bettencourt's butler.

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