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What the butler heard: L’Oreal heiress' tax scandal taints minister

Video by Olivia Salazar-Winspear

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2010-07-01

Tapes secretly recorded by a butler, €1 billion in lavish gifts to a society photographer, alleged tax evasion and a government minister’s wife: all ingredients in a scandal involving France’s richest woman.

A scandal involving allegations that France’s richest woman plotted to evade taxes has threatened to engulf French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s Labour Minister Eric Woerth.

L'Oreal heiress in family feud over one billion euro gifts

Woerth’s wife Florence managed the financial affairs of billionaire Liliane Bettencourt (pictured), who is head of the L’Oreal cosmetics empire, until her resignation was announced on Monday.

Her role has come under scrutiny after secretly taped recordings reportedly revealed that the 87-year-old Bettencourt had tried to avoid paying taxes.

"My wife has nothing to be ashamed of," an indignant Woerth told France 3 television on Tuesday, calling the accusations "vile and disgraceful".

The conversations, recorded by Bettencourt’s butler, allegedly show that the billionaire hid money in Swiss bank accounts while making large donations to friends in the governing UMP party.

The tapes have brought a new twist to a legal saga between Bettencourt and her daughter, Francoise Bettencourt-Meyers, who believes her mother is no longer fit to manage the family fortune.

The makeup heiress ranks 17th on the Forbes list of the world's billionaires, with a fortune estimated at €16 billion.

Lavish gifts totalling a billion euros

The scandal over the butler's tapes erupted just two weeks before a society photographer is to go on trial to answer charges from Bettencourt's daughter that he took advantage of her elderly mother when he accepted lavish gifts from her.

The photographer, François-Marie Banier, received masterpiece paintings, cash and insurance policies worth nearly €1 billion from Bettencourt.

The scandal comes at a delicate time for the French government as it tries to push through an overhaul of the pension system in the face of opposition from the unions, which have called for nationwide strikes.

Socialist opposition member Arnaud Montebourg called on Woerth, formerly the budget minister, to step down to allow the "truth to be known" about Bettencourt's financial dealings.

"It seems to me that it would be extremely difficult for Eric Woerth to stay at his post in a government that has made dismantling tax havens a priority," Montebourg told AFP.

"We have a budget minister, who was also a treasurer for the UMP, and whose wife worked to help Mrs. Bettencourt with her tax fraud," he said.

 

Date created : 2010-06-22

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