By Nick Vinocur
PARIS (Reuters) - Former French president Jacques Chirac and his prime minister Dominique de Villepin have denied accusations by a one-time aide that they took millions of dollars in illicit cash handouts from African leaders.
In explosive -- if hard to verify -- testimony seven months ahead of a presidential election, lawyer Robert Bourgi told a radio station on Monday that he had handed them some $20 million from heads of state of former French colonies. The secret campaign donations were sometimes concealed in African drums or crammed into suitcases. Both Chirac and Villepin plan to sue.
Bourgi also advised President Nicolas Sarkozy but denied passing cash to him -- a denial questioned by others, including supporters of Villepin, whose potential challenge to Sarkozy at April's election would follow years of bitter in-fighting in the Gaullist movement that long dominated the French center-right.
Sarkozy's aides denied he had any link to the allegations, though his far-right opponent, Marine Le Pen, was quick to forecast that the affair would hurt the president's campaign.
French parties suffered several scandals since the 1990s for breaching strict legal rules on campaign funding. Bourgi said the practice of tapping African allies -- part of a patronage network commonly known as "Francafrique" -- went back to the 1960s, and he believed few politicians were unaware of it.
Chirac, whose party long enjoyed particularly warm ties with the autocratic rulers of former colonies, is on trial at present on charges of misusing public funds when he was mayor of Paris. His lawyers say the 78-year-old is not mentally fit to testify.
"I estimate the amount I delivered to Chirac and Dominique de Villepin between 1995 and 2005 at $20 million," Bourgi told Europe 1 radio on Monday, following up on an interview with Sunday's Journal du Dimanche newspaper in which he described himself as a "bag carrier" for the two politicians.
"I saw Chirac and Villepin count the money," Bourgi said of alleged visits to their offices carrying bundles of banknotes.
The 66-year-old lawyer said he delivered money concealed in suitcases or disguised in a variety of containers -- from African drums to advertising posters. The cash was donated, he said, by the leaders of Senegal, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Congo and Gabon, two of whom -- Abdoulaye Wade of Senegal and Blaise Compaore of Burkina Faso -- are still in office.
There was no immediate reaction from those leaders.
"I don't know what Chirac and Villepin did with it. That's their problem," Bourgi said, adding that the donations increased ahead of elections. Chirac was president from 1995 to 2007. Villepin, a career diplomat, served as premier from 2005 until Sarkozy succeed Chirac as head of state in 2007.
Bourgi, born in Dakar to a family of Lebanese origin, said Villepin dropped contact with him in 2005. He then worked in a similar informal advisory capacity for Sarkozy but, he said, without ever delivering cash in the same way.
Chirac's lawyer, Jean Veil, said he would sue Bourgi for defamation. Villepin told the Journal du Dimanche: "All of this is worthless talk and smoke screens."
Allies of Villepin, whose hopes of running next year may hang on being acquitted in court of trying to smear Sarkozy at the last election, disputed Bourgi's claim that donations from Africa ended as soon as Bourgi started working for Sarkozy.
"It is not credible," Jean-Francois Probst, a former Chirac adviser on Africa, said. "Nothing ended with Sarkozy."
Another former Africa adviser to Chirac, Michel Bonnecorse, told Le Monde newspaper that cash continued to come in from Africa after Sarkozy was elected president in 2007.
Sarkozy aide Henri Guaino said: "Neither the Elysee, nor those working for the president, nor the president himself, are involved in this affair."
But far-right leader Le Pen argued the affair would hurt Sarkozy's campaign: "The French will learn how the president of the republic has kept up with these dealings," she said.
(Reporting by Nick Vinocur, Patrick Vignal and Yann Le Guernigou; Writing by Nick Vinocur; Editing by Catherine Bremer and Alastair Macdonald)