President Nicolas Sarkozy went on national television Monday to fight allegations of illegal financing for his 2007 election campaign, claims that have threatened the government's credibility as it pushes through unpopular cost-cutting reforms.
The president said Labor Minister Eric Woerth, who is at the heart of the scandal and is in charge of a difficult pension reform, would keep his job in the government. But apparently bowing to public pressure, Sarkozy said he advised Woerth to resign from his contested second job, as the treasurer of their conservative UMP party.
Sarkozy, whose poll ratings have slipped to his lowest point in three years in office, described the party financing allegations as a "campaign" against him.
Speaking to France 2 television in the garden of the presidential Elysee Palace, he steered the questions away from the scandal toward his efforts to modernize the country, casting himself as a tireless leader willing to put himself on the line to save France from its untenable expectations about government social protections.
"When you carry out reforms ... you bother a certain number of people," Sarkozy said. "And the response is often slander."
Sarkozy is trying to win back voter support amid worries about a scandal involving the billionaire heiress to the L'Oreal cosmetics fortune that has destabilized the government, especially Woerth.
Politicians left and right had urged Sarkozy to respond publicly to allegations by a former accountant to L'Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt that she gave euro150,000 in cash to Woerth, party treasurer, during the 2007 presidential campaign. The alleged sum would greatly exceed legal limits for campaign donations.
Sarkozy has denied the claims, which have not been proven. French prosecutors have opened a preliminary investigation.
The president has seen diplomatic successes from Libya to New York but barely a quarter of his compatriots support him, pollsters say. He has less than two years before 2012 presidential elections — when he could face a surprising threat from the opposition Socialists, who are buoyed by his current troubles.
Sarkozy's interview gave him a sort of final word before the Bastille Day national holiday Wednesday and before many French head off on their summer vacations.
It also allowed him to explain to the French public why he believes the pension system must be reformed. On Tuesday, his government will formally present the plan, which includes raising the retirement age from 60 to 62.
France's government — like those around Europe — is trying to rein in runaway debt. Though France would still have one of the lowest retirement ages in the rich world, massive protests are planned for Sept. 7 over the plan. Sarkozy said they wouldn't change his course.
"If you have to withdraw projects that are useful for the country every time there is a demonstration, we would never do anything useful for the country," he said.
Woerth has denied any wrongdoing in the scandal that ensnared the government, and Sarkozy called him an "honest man." Woerth had told Europe-1 radio earlier Monday that he would consider resigning from the treasurer post.
In another facet of the complicated scandal, a French financial inspection agency said in a report Sunday that Woerth did not abuse his position to spare Bettencourt a tax audit when he was budget minister. Woerth's wife worked as a financial adviser to Bettencourt.
Though prosecutors are still probing that aspect of the affair, Sarkozy insisted the report showed Woerth was "cleared of any suspicion." He nonetheless said he would set up a commission of all political stripes to propose how to change the law to prevent conflicts of interest.
In an aside, Sarkozy said he knew what it felt like to be the victim of personal attacks. He said rumors of infidelity that had swirled months ago around him and his wife, singer Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, were "the worst idle gossip about our private life."
When the journalist asked him if he had suffered from the rumors, he responded simply, "yes."
Associated Press writer Angela Charlton in Paris contributed to this report.
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