UPDATE 2-Bettencourt probes add to pressure on French govt

* Sarkozy to make TV address on Monday

* Wealth manager targeted in donations investigation

* French weekly unveils cash withdrawals before election

* Police launch new investigation into Bettencourt taxes

(Recasts with Sarkozy address, adds tax fraud investigation)

By Gerard Bon and Thierry Leveque

PARIS, July 9 (BestGrowthStock) – French President Nicolas Sarkozy
will make a rare summer address to the nation, his office said
on Friday, amid mounting pressure on his government over a key
pension reform and questions about political donations.

In the latest twist in a complex affair that has rocked the
centre-right government, police searched the premises of the
wealth manager of France’s richest woman earlier in the day.

They are trying to find out whether L’Oreal heiress Liliane
Bettencourt and her late husband made illegal donations to
conservative politicians for the 2007 election campaign.

Labour Minister Eric Woerth has a key role because he is in
charge of a key pension reform to be presented to the cabinet on
Tuesday, and was Sarkozy’s election campaign treasurer at the
time of the alleged donations.

Angry voters have called for a cabinet reshuffle and, after
weeks of turmoil, Sarkozy’s office said on Friday that he would
make a rare pre-summer holiday television address on Monday, the
day before the pension reform’s presentation to cabinet.

A source at the presidential palace said Sarkozy’s
appearance was not related to the political crisis.

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The donations inquiry was ordered after Claire Thibout,
Bettencourt’s former bookkeeper, said she had routinely
withdrawn cash destined for illegal political donations at the
request of Patrice de Maistre, who managed Bettencourt’s
fortune.

During police questioning this week Thibout was brought face
to face with de Maistre, who has denied her allegations.

Authorities searched de Maistre’s home and offices on
Friday. “When you have an investigation of this size, several
investigations, this type of search is not surprising,” de
Maistre’s lawyer, Pascal Wilhelm, told Reuters.

CASH WITHDRAWALS

The French weekly magazine Marianne, citing the former
bookkeeper’s ledgers, said on Friday that more than 390,000
euros ($495,000) in cash had been withdrawn from Bettencourt’s
account in the four months before the 2007 election.

Chantal Trovel, the former private secretary of
Bettencourt’s late husband, told police that envelopes of cash
had been given to politicians, according to her lawyer, who is
also acting for Thibout.

The website Mediapart quoted Thibout, in an interview
published earlier this week, as saying that Sarkozy was one of
the politicians who came to Bettencourt’s villa in a wealthy
Paris suburb to collect cash.

But on Thursday Thibout denied naming Sarkozy as a direct
recipient of cash, saying Mediapart had misquoted her. Mediapart
said it had “scrupulously transcribed” Thibout’s words.

Government officials said her retraction exonerated Sarkozy.

Thibout’s lawyer told Reuters his client had not backtracked
on a separate allegation she made, that Woerth had received
150,000 euros in illegal campaign donations when he was campaign
treasurer.

Woerth denies any wrongdoing.

Last month Mediapart released secretly recorded
conversations between Bettencourt, whose fortune is estimated at
14.4 billion euros, and her advisers raising questions about the
elderly tycoon’s tax returns.

Police said late on Friday they had opened a third
investigation into tax fraud after searches of her wealth
manager’s home and offices.

Opposition lawmakers, who have asked why Woerth did not
order a probe into Bettencourt’s tax affairs when he was budget
minister, are awaiting a report from the budget ministry
auditor, due to be published on Monday.

Sarkozy’s approval ratings have dropped to an all-time low,
and a survey released on Friday showed he would lose the second
round of the next general election, due in 2012, to Socialist
Party leader Martine Aubry.
(Additional reporting and writing by John Irish and Victoria
Bryan; editing by Tim Pearce)

UPDATE 2-Bettencourt probes add to pressure on French govt