Sarkozy ally Eric Woerth facing Bettencourt charges

Eric Woerth (October 2010)
Image caption Eric Woerth resigned from the French government in 2010

A French former minister is under criminal investigation for influence peddling over a scandal involving the finances of France's richest woman.

Eric Woerth was questioned on Wednesday by judges investigating complex allegations involving L'Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt.

The charges relate to claims that Mr Woerth secured France's highest award, the Legion of Honour, for Mrs Bettencourt's financial manager.

Mr Woerth denies any wrongdoing.

The former labour minister and treasurer of President Nicolas Sarkozy's party stepped down in 2010 after being linked to claims that money belonging to Mrs Bettencourt was stuffed into envelopes and handed out in illegal donations to Mr Sarkozy's election campaign in 2007.

Individual campaign contributions in France are limited to 4,600 euros.

The president, who is immune from prosecution while still in office, has condemned the allegations of illegal donations as "lies and calumny".

The potential charges of "passive influence peddling" against Mr Woerth relate to claims that he ensured that Mrs Bettencourt's employee, Patrice de Maistre, was awarded the Legion of Honour after Mr Woerth's wife Florence was given a job working for Mr Maistre.

The judges have not placed Mr Woerth under criminal investigation for the wider allegation of illegal campaign financing.

A charge of peddling influence carries a maximum punishment of 10 years' imprisonment and a 150,000 euro (£126,000 ; $199,000) fine.

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