Former French President Jacques Chirac and former Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin received an estimated $20 million in illegal cash from West African leaders, a lawyer who claimed to be the go-between said Monday.
Lawyer Robert Bourgi said he handed over suitcases filled with cash between 1995 and 2005, including $10 million from the leaders of Senegal, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Gabon and Republic of Congo for Chirac's 2002 presidential campaign.
Both Villepin and Chirac's lawyers denounced the claims.
The explosive 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 cozy relations with autocratic regimes in its former African colonies.
In an interview Monday on Europe-1 radio, Bourgi said "the entirety of (France's) political class knew there was hidden financing."
Chirac's attorney, Jean Veil, has said the former French leader is going to press defamation charges against Bourgi, calling the timing of the claims "at the very least suspicious, if not scandalous."
Chirac is already on trial on charges that fake Paris City Hall jobs were used to fund Chirac's conservative party during his tenure as Paris 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.
An official at the presidential Elysee Palace, where Chirac's successor Nicolas Sarkozy resides, rejected Bourgi's claim as "totally baseless." The official could not be named in keeping with palace custom.
Burkina Faso, among the African nations cited, dismissed the claim as "grotesque."
Government spokesman Alain Edouard Traore said Bourgi's declaration is linked to internal French politics ahead of presidential elections next year.
"We have far more serious things to do for Burkina Faso than handle pronouncements between candidates and non-candidates, between advisers," Traore said on national radio.
Bourgi refuted any suggestion his comments were politically motivated, telling Europe-1, "I am acting in my name. No one asked me to do the interview. It is my conscience that required to speak out."
Bourgi 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.
Villepin, Chirac's charismatic chief of staff and later prime minister whom Bourgi accuses of receiving many of the money bags, dismissed the accusations as "false and disgraceful."
Speaking Sunday on France-3 television, Villepin, facing legal challenges of his own, also questioned the timing of Bourgi's claims. A Paris appeals court is to rule Tuesday on the Clearstream affair, centering on charges that Villepin helped orchestrate a smear campaign against his rival, Sarkozy. Villepin was acquitted last year, but the prosecutor appealed.
Martine Aubry, who heads the opposition Socialist party and is seeking to run in next year's presidential elections, called Bourgi's claims "extremely serious," and urged the courts to investigate.
Meanwhile Monday, a longtime Chirac aide claimed that Sarkozy, too, profited from the pay outs.
"Sarkozy's entourage got its slice of the cake," Michel de Bonnecorse, who advised Chirac on African affairs, was quoted as saying in Monday's Le Monde newspaper.
Bonnecorse's comments contradicted comments by Bourgi, saying then-Interior Minister Sarkozy told him in 2005 "the era of the briefcases is over."
Associated Press writers Cecile Brisson, Pierre-Antoine Souchard and Sylvie Corbet in Paris and Brahima Ouedraogo in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso contributed to this report.