French opposition boss quits over Sarkozy funding scandal

French opposition boss quits over Sarkozy funding scandal
Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

PARIS - The leader of France's embattled centre-right opposition quit Tuesday following claims that invoices for former president Nicolas Sarkozy's 2012 election campaign were fraudulently billed as party expenses.

Jean-Francois Cope agreed to step down at the request of fellow heavyweights in the Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) following the latest twist in an scandal engulfing him and a PR firm owned by two close friends.

The 50-year-old leader's position became untenable after Sarkozy's former deputy campaign director gave an explosive television interview on Monday evening.

Jerome Lavrilleux tearfully claimed that bills for Sarkozy's failed 2012 re-election campaign were passed off as invoices for party meetings in order to skirt round France's strict limits on campaign financing.

Lavrilleux claimed that neither Sarkozy nor Cope were aware of what was being done. "I didn't have the courage to say 'stop, we have gone too far'," he said.

As party leader Cope was responsible for authorising the payments made to the Bygmalion PR company.

"This is a new page, from now on I will handle politics differently," said Cope, deputy mayor of Meaux, said in comments broadcast on the TF1 television channel on Tuesday evening, asking France not to doubt his integrity and adding that employees had "abused" his trust.

According to a lawyer for the company, the amount billed to the UMP that should have been charged to Sarkozy's campaign amounted to more than 10 million euros (S$17.1 million).

The lawyer says the company was pressured to falsify the bills or risk not getting paid.

While Bygmalion has sought to explain the false bills as an attempt to help Sarkozy, some senior UMP figures suspect the company of simply seeking cash, with the connivance of Cope.

The saga is the latest in a series of scandals linking Sarkozy to alleged irregularities in the funding of his electoral campaigns which threaten to wreck his chances of reclaiming the presidency in 2017.

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