Reporting from Paris — French President Nicolas Sarkozy went on television Monday night in his latest effort to dismiss as "slander and lies" a series of accusations of corruption and cronyism in his administration.
In what was seen by political commentators here as the most important public declaration of his presidency so far, Sarkozy bullishly denied receiving an illegal campaign contribution from France's richest woman, L'Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt.
The president's popularity has sunk to a historic low after allegations that he received money stuffed in an envelope from the billionaire.
"The very idea that I went to Madame Bettencourt to get money in envelopes …. It's a shame," he told France 2, the state television station.
"And it's a waste of time when there are more important issues."
Sarkozy said the accusations were an attempt to smear him because he is trying to introduce controversial pension reforms including raising the retirement age from 60 to 62.
"I was elected to resolve the problems of France and the French, problems that haven't been resolved for years because they are difficult, like pensions. If you do that you trouble certain people," the president said during the hourlong interview.
Shortly before Sarkozy went on air, police searched the 87-year-old Bettencourt's luxury villa in the district of Neuilly-sur-Seine, west of Paris, a search police called "a visit to take receipt of documents."
They also raided the home of society photographer Francois-Marie Banier. He is the defendant in a lawsuit brought by Bettencourt's daughter charging that he took advantage of what the suit calls the heiress' enfeebled mental state to trick her out of art, cash and insurance policies worth $1.25 billion.
Willsher is a special correspondent.