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French opposition boss quits over Sarkozy funding scandal

(FILES) - A picture taken on April 23, 2013, shows French right-wing opposition party Union for a Popular Movement President Jean-Francois Cope, waving after delivering a speech during a meeting in Le Coudray-Montceaux, southwest of Paris. AFP PHOTO PIERRE ANDRIEU

PARIS: The leader of France's embattled main opposition UMP party quit Tuesday after shock claims that invoices for former president Nicolas Sarkozy's election campaign were billed as party expenses.

Several heavyweights of the center-right party, including Sarkozy's former Prime Minister Francois Fillon, demanded Cope's resignation following the latest twist in a corruption scandal engulfing him and a PR firm owned by his associates.

Cope, who had so far shunned calls for his ouster, agreed to step down from June 15, UMP officials said.

The party top brass had gathered in Paris for a meeting to review its dismal performance in Sunday's European elections but the spotlight swung on the latest scandal after Sarkozy's former deputy campaign director alleged more fraud.

Jerome Lavrilleux dropped a bombshell on television Monday, claiming that bills for Sarkozy's failed 2012 re-election campaign were passed off as invoices for party conferences.

Although Lavrilleux said they were "anomalies" and claimed that neither Sarkozy nor Cope were in the loop, the latest saga in the so-called Bygmalion scandal was a further blow to the party, which suffered its first ever defeat to the far-right National Front party during the weekend European elections.

According to French media reports, Event & Cie, a subsidiary of the Bygmalion PR company owned by Cope's friends, over-billed the UMP, allegedly earning at least 8 million euros ($11 million) during the campaign to organise rallies.

Just hours before Lavrilleux's dramatic claim, a lawyer for Bygmalion said the company had been pressured to falsify Sarkozy's bills or risk not getting paid.

The fraud was allegedly conducted to skirt France's campaign finance laws.

Sarkozy, who has been implicated in several corruption scandals and denies any wrongdoing in any of them, is "very unhappy to see his name dragged into this strange affair," his close ally and former minister Brice Hortefeux said on Tuesday.

Sarkozy has faced accusations he attempted to pervert the course of justice and that late Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi financed part of his successful 2007 election campaign.

France's constitutional court had rapped Sarkozy last year for exceeding campaign spending limits and the party plunged into debt following its defeat in the 2012 legislative elections.

Following that the former president launched a massive party fund collection drive, netting over 10 million euros from supporters.

Cope has also been roundly attacked by Sarkozy's former prime minister Francois Fillon -- with whom he fought a tough, bitter and long battle for the UMP'sleadership in 2012.

Fillon said the UMP's "credibility and honour have been damaged" after the European elections debacle in which the party came second with 20.8 percent of the vote.

Fillon has made no secret of his desire to be a presidential candidate in 2017 even if his former boss Sarkozy wants to make a comeback.

 

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Summary

The leader of France's embattled main opposition UMP party quit Tuesday after shock claims that invoices for former president Nicolas Sarkozy's election campaign were billed as party expenses.

Jerome Lavrilleux dropped a bombshell on television Monday, claiming that bills for Sarkozy's failed 2012 re-election campaign were passed off as invoices for party conferences.

Sarkozy has faced accusations he attempted to pervert the course of justice and that late Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi financed part of his successful 2007 election campaign.

France's constitutional court had rapped Sarkozy last year for exceeding campaign spending limits and the party plunged into debt following its defeat in the 2012 legislative elections.


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