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Ex-French leaders 'got secret cash'

Former French president Jacques Chirac and prime minister Dominique de Villepin have been accused of taking millions in illegal cash for political campaigns.

They got an estimated £12.5 million from West African leaders, a lawyer who claimed to be the go-between said.

Robert Bourgi said he handed over suitcases filled with cash between 1995 and 2005, from the leaders of Senegal, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Gabon and Republic of Congo for Chirac's 2002 presidential campaign. Both Mr Villepin and Chirac's lawyers denied the claims.

The allegations come as Chirac is on trial for unconnected corruption charges related to his years as Paris mayor, and as the campaign for next year's French presidential elections is heating up. The claims revived uncomfortable questions about France's cosy relations with autocratic regimes in its former African colonies.

In an interview on Europe-1 radio, Mr Bourgi said "the entirety of (France's) political class knew there was hidden financing."

Chirac's lawyer, Jean Veil, has said he will press sue Bourgi for defamation, calling the timing of the claims is "at the very least suspicious, if not scandalous."

Chirac is already on trial on charges that fake Paris municipal jobs were used to fund his conservative party during his tenure as mayor. A judge ruled last week the 78-year-old ex-president could be represented by his lawyers at the proceedings, as he is suffering from severe memory lapses.

Mr Bourgi denied his comments were politically motivated, saying: "I am acting in my name. No one asked me to do the interview. It is my conscience that required to speak out."

He added that because the payouts were in cash, "I have no proof. In such matters, there is never any proof" or physical evidence to support his claims.

Mr Villepin, Chirac's chief of staff and later prime minister whom Mr Bourgi accuses of receiving many of the money bags, dismissed the accusations as "false and disgraceful."

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