UPDATE 1-Bookkeeper softens some French scandal charges

* Heiress’s ex-bookkeeper says she drew cash for politicians

* Presidential aide says testimony clears Sarkozy

* Bookkeeper’s lawyer says was pressured to retract

* Conservative lawmakers vote against bills in rare revolt

(Recasts)

By Emmanuel Jarry and Thierry Leveque

PARIS, July 8 (BestGrowthStock) – A former bookkeeper for France’s
richest woman told police on Thursday she had routinely drawn
cash to be given to conservative politicians but denied naming
President Nicolas Sarkozy as a direct recipient, a judicial
spokeswoman said.

A scandal over alleged illegal political donations by
Liliane Bettencourt, heiress to the L’Oreal (OREP.PA: ) cosmetics
empire, and her late husband, has shaken Sarkozy’s government
and driven his approval rating to a record low.

Aides to Sarkozy told reporters the bookkeeper, Claire
Thibout, had exonerated the president of having received
envelopes stuffed with banknotes.

However, a spokeswoman for the Nanterre public prosecutor
said Thibout maintained another allegation that she had
withdrawn 50,000 euros in cash as part of an indirect illegal
donation to Sarkozy’s 2007 election campaign.

She alleged that Bettencourt’s wealth manager, Patrice de
Maistre, had asked her to fetch the money and had added cash
from Switzerland to a 150,000 euro donation to Labour Minister
Eric Woerth, treasurer of the ruling UMP party.

An opinion poll for Le Parisien daily showed 55 percent of
voters want a government shake-up because of the Bettencourt
affair and 48 percent of respondents want Sarkozy to address the
nation on the issue.

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For stories about the Bettencourt affair, [ID:nLDE6651VZ]

For questions and answers on the affair, [ID:nLDE6661RQ]

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Thibout said in an interview with the Mediapart news website
published on Tuesday that she had not witnessed the handover of
cash to Woerth personally but had been told about it.

Police questioned her all day on Thursday and confronted her
for five hours with De Maistre, who denied her allegations. De
Maistre’s lawyer, Pascal Wilhelm, told France-Info radio the
bookkeeper had contradicted herself and kept changing her story.

PRESSURE

Thibout’s lawyer told Reuters that public prosecutors had
put unacceptable pressure on his client to retract while denying
him access to her. “The word pressure seems to me appropriate. I
consider the prosecutor’s harassment of her absolutely
scandalous,” lawyer Antoine Gillot said.

The scandal, which began as a family feud between the
heiress and her daughter, has led to calls for Woerth to resign
and for Sarkozy to reshuffle the cabinet and address the nation.

Thibout was quoted as saying that numerous conservative
politicians had paraded through the Bettencourts’ villa in the
Paris suburb of Neuilly to collect plain brown envelopes stuffed
with banknotes, particularly during election campaigns.

Mediapart quoted her as saying Sarkozy had been a regular
visitor when he was mayor of the Bettencourts’ home district of
Neuilly from 1983 to 2002 and he too had received envelopes.

Mediapart said it stood by its story. However, it also
published what it said was a transcript of Thibout’s
interrogation by police on Wednesday, in which she accused a
Mediapart journalist of embroidering her quotes including some
regarding a former conservative French premier.

“The Mediapart article quotes me as having said things about
the election campaign of Mr (Edouard) Balladur. It’s totally
wrong. That was romanticised by Mediapart. Just as I never said
that envelopes were regularly given to Mr Sarkozy,” Thibout
said, according to the transcript.

The prosecutor ordered a police investigation on Wednesday
into the allegations of illegal political funding. Both Woerth
and De Maistre have filed defamation suits over her allegations.
Woerth has denied wrongdoing and insisted he will not resign.

The value of Bettencourt’s fortune has risen 40 percent in
the past year to 14.4 billion euros ($18.14 billion), the weekly
magazine Challenges reported, making her France’s third richest
person. [ID:nLDE6671N8]
(Additional reporting by Sophie Taylor and John Irish, writing
by Paul Taylor, editing by Philippa Fletcher/David Stamp))

UPDATE 1-Bookkeeper softens some French scandal charges