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Embattled magistrate surrenders control of Bettencourt scandal probe

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2010-10-29

The French prosecutor (pictured) probing a massive scandal linked to L'Oreal billionaire Liliane Bettencourt handed over the investigation to independent judges Friday following criticisms of his handling of the probe.

A French state prosecutor on Friday said he would relinquish control of preliminary inquiries into a sprawling politico-financial scandal linked to France’s richest woman, the L’Oreal billionaire Liliane Bettencourt.

Philippe Courroye, who is widely regarded as being close to French President Nicolas Sarkozy and the political circle allegedly implicated in the scandal, handed over the investigation to three judges.

In France, judges, unlike state prosecutors, are independent from the authority of the justice ministry.

The handover came days after Courroye’s direct superior, Versailles state prosecutor Philippe Ingall-Montagnier, requested him to relinquish control of the inquiry. It marked a stinging rebuke of Courroye, who has come under intense criticism from opposition politicians and magistrates’ unions for his handling of the case.

The inquiry into the scandal, dubbed the Bettencourt Affair in France, involves multiple accusations, including tax evasion by Bettencourt and claims of illegal campaign donations to the ruling UMP party. Criticisms over the inquiry has further complicated an already murky affair and raised concerns about the independence of France’s judiciary.

'An unfinished symphony'

Shortly after handing over the case, Courroye said he was “deeply disappointed” at having to surrender it. “If I were a musician this would be an unfinished symphony,” he told Europe 1 radio station.

The Nanterre prosecutor has been accused of shielding Sarkozy and his embattled labour minister, Eric Woerth, from investigations into the Bettencourt scandal. Courroye has vehemently denied the accusations.

But his position was further undermined last week after it emerged he had asked police to seize details of telephone calls made by journalists probing a separate aspect of the Bettencourt saga, one assigned to Courroye’s arch foe at the Nanterre court of justice, independent magistrate Isabelle Prévost-Desprez.

Scandal takes a sinister turn

Claims of interference with the work of journalists investigating the Bettencourt scandal appeared to take a more sinister turn this week amid reports of disappearing laptops and CD-ROMs at the newsrooms of Le Monde, Le Point and Mediapart, the online media organization that first probed the scandal’s political ramifications.

The newsroom thefts are likely to breathe new life into a scandal that had been overshadowed by the battle over Woerth’s controversial pension reform.

The labour minister has been accused of turning a blind eye to massive tax evasion by Bettencourt while also accepting illegal donations from the L’Oreal heiress on behalf of the UMP party.

Woerth and the government have repeatedly denied any wrongdoing.

Woerth’s predicament got worse when it emerged last month that he had endorsed a request for a Legion d’honneur, France’s highest state decoration, for his wife’s employer and Bettencourt wealth manager Patrice de Maistre.

Date created : 2010-10-29

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