André Bettencourt: political patronage and the extreme right
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The late André Bettencourt, husband of L’Oreal Heiress Liliane and at the centre of the latest revelations of dodgy dealings in French politics, had a murky history of far-right politics and freewheeling political patronage.
André Bettencourt “threw his money around big-time”, claims Claire Thibout. The family’s former accountant told online news site Mediapart on Monday that illegal cash payments were made to support Nicolas Sarkozy’s 2007 bid to become French president.
Known as “Dédé”, the late husband of billionaire L’Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt had a history of murky dealings that went to the heart of French politics.
The latest, according to the Mediapart report and coming two years after his death, is the allegation that he passed 150,000 euros to now-Labour Minister Eric Woerth to help Sarkozy win his presidential campaign.
According to Thibout, it was certainly not the first time Bettencourt had thrown his cash at politicians.
“There was a constant parade of senior politicians at his home,” she told Mediapart. “And they came most often when it was election time.”
Dédé and the Nazis
André Bettencourt began his prominent professional and personal career in the dark days of 1930s extreme politics and the subsequent Nazi occupation of France.
Born in Normandy in 1919, by the late 1930s he was frequenting meetings of “La Cagoule”, a violent French fascist-leaning and anti-communist group whose members included Eugene Schueller, the founder of L’Oreal and the father of his future wife Liliane.
Around this time he also became friendly with a certain Francois Mitterrand, France’s future socialist President. The two became lifelong friends.
And if Bettencourt never regretted the contacts he made in those years, some of his writings would come back to haunt him.
He wrote for the Nazi-sponsored, anti-Semitic weekly newspaper “La Terre Francaise”, in which he described Jews as “hypocritical Pharisees” whose “race has been forever sullied by the blood of the righteous. They will be cursed.”
After the war Bettencourt played down lines such as these as “youthful mistakes”, preferring to laud the fact that he joined the Resistance in 1943 alongside his friend Mitterrand, whom he helped whisk away to London to make contact with General de Gaulle.
However, this attempt to join the “right side” at the end of the war and to distance himself from his extreme-right past did not stop him from doing everything in his power to protect the name and reputation of his friend Eugene Schueller, who had moved in pro-Nazi circles throughout the war.
Bettencourt married Schueller’s daughter Liliane just five years later, was given a seat on L’Oreal’s board, and saw the company grow into one of the world’s biggest cosmetics empires.
Business did not dampen his taste for politics, and Bettencourt held various ministerial positions in mostly right-wing governments.
In 1986 his old friend and socialist President Francois Mitterrand considered appointing him prime minister.
This never happened, and probably, for Mitterrand at least, for the better. Revelations of Bettencourt’s extreme-right past (which did not emerge until a decade later) would not have been the finest PR moment for the Socialist president.