France's main opposition party hit by corruption probe

PARIS (AFP) - French prosecutors have opened an investigation into allegations a firm belonging to friends of the main opposition leader systematically over-billed his UMP party, a judicial source said Thursday.

The probe was launched on March 5 following revelations by weekly Le Point that Jean-Francois Cope, leader of the UMP party to which former French president Nicolas Sarkozy also belongs, allegedly used his influence to channel party contracts to the PR company, which then charged the UMP more than the market rate.

It is the latest corruption probe to hit France's centre-right opposition, which has been caught on the back-foot with a string of scandals allegedly implicating Sarkozy and several others.

The probe centres around allegations that Event & Cie, a subsidiary of the Bygmalion PR company, over-billed the UMP, particularly during Sarkozy's 2012 election campaign which ended in failure.

According to Le Point, Event & Cie allegedly earned at least 8 million euros (S$14 million) during the campaign to organise rallies.

Both Cope and Bygmalion are suing Le Point for defamation over the report, and the lawyer of the UMP leader refused to comment Thursday when contacted by AFP.

But Patrick Maisonneuve, Bygmalion's lawyer, said the probe would show "that accusations of over-billing are groundless.

"Bygmalion is ready to pass on all bills to investigators," he said.

The allegations come just 10 days ahead of key municipal elections in which the UMP's support is expected to be squeezed by gains from the far-right National Front.

Cope himself has been marred by a string of controversies at the head of the UMP, including an acrimonious row over alleged ballot-rigging in the leadership vote he narrowly won in 2012.

He is widely expected to be pushed aside in the event Sarkozy makes a comeback to political life, although the former president is also at the heart of a string of corruption cases.

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

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