THAT’S LIFE – AN AGING HEIRESS, A RENEGADE BUTLER, THE FRENCH GOVERNMENT TOTTERS

By Steven Erlanger
The New York Times

PARIS — An aging heiress. An angry daughter. A society photographer. A renegade butler and an embittered accountant. Secret tapes. A famous company with a nasty past and long political connections. An unpopular president and a cabinet minister with a taste for money. Tales of illegal cash donations in envelopes.

L’ CHAIM

This romantic stew is known as “the Bettencourt affair,” after the elderly heiress of the L’Oreal fortune, Liliane Bettencourt, 87. What began as a fierce family fight, with her daughter charging that Bettencourt’s entourage has been manipulating her to steal her fortune, has shaken the office of French president Nicolas Sarkozy.

france-july-19-2
Liliane Bettencourt, left, and her
daughter Francoise, stars of a
soap opera that is gripping Paris
Patrick Kovarik Photography

The affair has captivated France even as the nation enters the long summer holiday, with daily headlines, detentions and constant leaks. Sarkozy’s sometimes clumsy efforts to contain the scandal are similar to BP’s in the Gulf of Mexico — the flow of crude appears contained but the problem is far from over.

C’EST LA VIE

On Monday, prosecutors said they will move to interview Bettencourt this week.

Sarkozy’s approval ratings, already low from France’s economic problems, have fallen further with the Bettencourt skulduggery.

france-july-19-4
President Nicolas Sarkozy

While Sarkozy himself seems insulated so far from charges of illegality, his labour minister, Éric Woerth, remains subject to investigations involving illegal political contributions and tax evasion. Woerth was budget minister, in charge of tax collection, until March, while also working as the treasurer of the ruling party, Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP), for the past eight years. He has quit, on Sarkozy’s orders, effective Aug. 1.

L’Oreal is a global cosmetics leader with brands that include Maybelline and the Body Shop. It is a champion of French industry but also has a complicated political history with both the right and the left.

Its founder in 1909, Eugène Schueller, Bettencourt’s father, supported the Nazis; Bettencourt’s husband, André, wrote for a Nazi-sponsored, anti-Semitic weekly in the early years of the war.

VICHY FRANCE NATIONAL ANTHEM

But André Bettencourt later joined the French Resistance and was a youthful friend of François Mitterrand, the future Socialist president. After the war, Mitterrand helped protect the Bettencourt family and L’Oreal from anti-Nazi campaigns and even considered making André Bettencourt prime minister in 1986.

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Liliane Bettencourt, like her late husband, is considered to have been closer to the Socialist Party than to the UMP. Shy and regal, she is the richest woman in Europe, with a fortune estimated at $20 billion and a 31 per cent stake in L’Oreal.

She joined the company at 15, as an apprentice. But as she aged, she grew estranged from her own daughter, Françoise Bettencourt-Meyers, 57, who suspected that members of her mother’s entourage, including a society photographer, François-Marie Banier, 63, were manipulating her to enrich themselves. Bettencourt has given Banier, for example, about 1 billion euro worth of annuities, paintings and other gifts, including, it seems, an island in the Seychelles.

L’Oreal has always played politics, backing the parties in power and courting important personalities. Bettencourt, for instance, had a private meeting with Sarkozy in the Elysée Palace to discuss the impact of the scandal on L’Oreal. And Woerth’s wife, Florence, was hired by Bettencourt to help manage her money — after Woerth asked Bettencourt’s wealth manager, Patrice de Maistre, to give her “career advice.”

Eric Woerth has been officially cleared of interfering in Bettencourt’s taxes, but others who have worked in the ministry have said that it is inconceivable that he would be unaware of the file of France’s wealthiest woman or that his subordinates would be unaware of his wife’s employment.

Suggestions that Sarkozy took envelopes of cash from Bettencourt have been put to rest, but the police are pursuing an allegation from a disgruntled former Bettencourt accountant, Claire Thibout, that Woerth was illicitly given 150,000 euro in cash for Sarkozy’s 2007 presidential campaign.

Without being specific, Thibout said many politicians arrived for tea and envelopes. “These gentlemen often came to get money,” she told the police, in leaked testimony.

A TIMELESS REVOLUTION

At least three criminal inquiries are under way, all under Philippe Courroye, the public prosecutor of Nanterre, who has been criticized as too close to Sarkozy. A fourth, by an independent investigating judge, Isabelle Prévost-Desprez, is soon to begin, despite Courroye’s objections.

Banier who, like de Maistre and two others, was detained for 36 hours last week for questioning by the tax police, testified that he did not want the island, “because of the mosquitoes and the sharks,” according to testimony leaked to the French press. Banier, who has a history of friendships with wealthy elderly women, said his relationship with Bettencourt could not be reduced to money.

The saga began in 2007, with a lawsuit by Bettencourt-Meyers, an only child, against Banier. A trial this summer was delayed when Bettencourt’s former butler, Pascal Bonnefoy, who shared many of the daughter’s concerns, surrendered more than 21 hours of recordings he had secretly made from May 2009 to May 2010.

The tapes, made in Bettencourt’s home, capture her advisers and others — including Banier — talking to her about tax havens, tax evasion, Swiss bank accounts, the Woerths, Sarkozy, and political contacts and contributions.

On the tapes, Bettencourt often seems bored and forgetful of details, like the Seychelles island. But she has resisted court efforts to submit to an examination of her mental state.

Everyone has denied wrongdoing. Bettencourt has promised to provide the police all requested information. She says that she has ordered an “independent audit” of her finances and that she will pay any taxes owed.

But she has been scathing about her daughter and her “vile doggedness” in two television interviews. “My daughter could have waited patiently for my death instead of doing all she can to precipitate it,” she said.

This being France, a film will be made, and comparisons to the classics abound. Arthur Goldhammer, a chronicler of French politics at Harvard’s Center for European Studies, said: “This saga is the French King Lear: a thankless child attacks a failing parent and a regime totters.”

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