July 7, 2010 / 11:46 AM / 7 years ago

French heiress affair is half drama, half farce

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.

Act Four: After "what the butler saw," the latest episode could be dubbed "what the bookkeeper heard." A former bookkeeper for Bettencourt and her late husband tells police and a media website that she was involved in withdrawing 150,000 euros in cash to give to Woerth as a donation for President Nicolas Sarkozy's 2007 election campaign. She says she did not witness the handover herself but was told of the plan.

Woerth and Sarkozy deny the allegation, as does the wealth manager, and Woerth says he will not resign. All declare their honesty and blame the opposition Socialists for impugning their honor.

The bookkeeper tells news website Mediapart she regularly withdrew cash which the Bettencourts gave to conservative politicians in plain brown envelopes. Among those who received envelopes was Sarkozy, a regular visitor to the Bettencourt villa when he was mayor of their suburb of Neuilly, in western Paris, from 1995 to 2002, she says.

In a line worthy of a Moliere farce, she says that because the elderly Bettencourts were increasingly deaf, their visitors had to speak loudly to make themselves heard, enabling the servants to eavesdrop from behind closed doors.

Act Five remains to be written but could be premiering any day now.

Sarkozy is hoping next Wednesday's Bastille Day national holiday, traditional start of the summer vacation season and the parliamentary recess, will bring down the curtain. But there seem to be too many loose ends and unresolved mysteries in the plot for it to simply melt away in the summer sunshine.

Editing by Geert De Clercq

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