French heiress affair is half drama, half farce

Wed Jul 7, 2010 7:44am EDT
 
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By Paul Taylor

PARIS (Reuters) - You couldn't make this stuff up. The political funding scandal gripping France is a thriller mixing the high drama of Corneille and the farce of Moliere.

It is a tale of unimaginable wealth, high society glamour, low politics, tax havens and a family feud, with declarations of high moral purpose undermined by mutinous servants.

What began as a falling-out between France's richest woman and her daughter has turned into a soap opera that threatens to fell a cabinet minister, has sent shockwaves through President Nicolas Sarkozy's Elysee Palace and has kept the French public on the edge of its seat.

Act One: Liliane Bettencourt, billionaire heiress of the L'Oreal cosmetics empire, and her daughter fall out over the old lady's friendship with society photographer Francois-Marie Banier, who is alleged to have received gifts worth nearly 1 billion euros.

The daughter, Florence Meyers-Bettencourt, files a criminal complaint accusing the photographer of abusing her mother's frailty, and a civil suit to have the heiress declared mentally irresponsible and made a ward of court.

Act Two: It emerges that Bettencourt's former butler secretly recorded conversations between the heiress and her wealth manager, which her daughter has passed to the police. Transcripts published by website Mediapart appear to refer to undeclared bank accounts in Switzerland and an island in the Seychelles. The wealth manager promises to put her tax affairs in order.

Act Three: The family feud turns political with the disclosure that Florence Woerth, wife of Labour Minister Eric Woerth, worked for the firm managing Bettencourt's fortune. Woerth, who was both budget minister and treasurer of the ruling UMP party, denies any conflict of interest, but announces a few days later that his wife has quit her job. Florence Woerth tells a newspaper she underestimated possible conflicts of interest.

Woerth denies having blocked a tax investigation into Bettencourt's fortune after a prosecutor says he informed the budget ministry of his suspicions back in January 2009.   Continued...