France's richest woman moves to defuse scandal

21st June 2010, Comments 0 comments

France's richest woman, L'Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt, pledged to declare all of her foreign assets on Monday to comply with French laws after she was caught on tape allegedly plotting tax evasion.

"I have decided to declare all of my family assets that are currently abroad in cooperation with the French tax authorities," the shampoo and cosmetics billionaire said in a statement.

The 87-year-old has been caught up in a storm since last week when secret tapes revealed that she had allegedly conspired to hide money in Swiss bank accounts while making donations to friends in the governing UMP party.

Bettencourt ranks 17th on the Forbes list of the world's billionaires, with a fortune estimated at 20 billion dollars (16 billion euros).

The makeup heiress said funds from an old Swiss bank account and an insurance policy purchased for one of her grandsons would be declared to tax authorities among other sources of revenue.

Transcripts of tapes published on the Mediapart website suggest Bettencourt funnelled 80 million euros into Swiss bank accounts and planned to move the funds to Singapore after France signed a tax cooperation deal with Switzerland.

Bettencourt's butler secretly recorded the conversations between the billionaire and her financial adviser in her villa in the posh Paris suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine between May 2009 and May 2010.

The scandal over the butler's tapes has threatened to engulf a high-profile minister in President Nicolas Sarkozy's government whose wife helped manage Bettencourt's financial affairs.

Labour Minister Eric Woerth announced on Monday that his wife Florence will resign from the firm managing Bettencourt's affairs "in the coming days" and strongly denied any conflict of interest.

Woerth, who is leading the government's delicate pension reform, is facing mounting calls from the opposition to resign over the scandal.

In her statement, Bettencourt stressed that she had over the past ten years paid more than 400 million euros in taxes and social charges to French authorities and denied that she had sought to hide her wealth.

"I have always wanted to remain a resident of France and pay taxes here as one of France's wealthiest women," she said.

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

The scandal erupted just two weeks before a photographer is to go on trial to answer charges from Bettencourt-Meyers that he took advantage of her elderly mother when he accepted lavish gifts from her.

The photographer, Francois-Marie Banier, received masterpiece paintings, cash and insurance policies worth nearly one billion euros from Bettencourt.

Bettencourt's lawyer has accused the daughter of pressuring the butler to spy on his employer, but there have also been reports that the man wanted to take revenge after she fired a few of his co-workers.

© 2010 AFP

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