French left demands probe of minister's ties to billionaire

22nd June 2010, Comments 0 comments

The French opposition demanded Tuesday that a high-profile minister be investigated for his ties to L'Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt, who was taped allegedly plotting tax evasion.

Labour Minister Eric Woerth is already under pressure to resign after it emerged that his wife helped manage Bettencourt's 16-billion-euro (20-billion-dollar) fortune.

On Monday, Woerth announced that his wife would quit her job at the firm handling the billionaire's financial affairs.

Socialist deputy Arnaud Montebourg declared that the link between Woerth, a former budget minister who oversaw taxation, his wife and Bettencourt created "the impression of a revolting type of collusion."

France's richest woman, Bettencourt has been caught up in a storm since 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.

Woerth "was in charge of scrutinising the most important taxpayers in France ... of fighting tax evasion," said Montebourg, "and at the same time he had a personal interest in one of France's biggest fortunes."

"This is a criminal offence," Montebourg told RTL radio. "There should be an investigation."

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.

Woerth has also come under fire from European parliament deputy Eva Joly, a former judge famous for uncovering corruption, who charged that the minister was in an "unbelievable" conflict of interest.

The minister, who is tasked with leading the government's delicate pension reform, told a radio interview that his wife "was not in charge of Bettencourt's personal funds. She was responsible for L'Oreal dividends."

A star in President Nicolas Sarkozy's government who was known as "Mr Clean", Woerth said his wife will sue Joly for libel, a threat he has also directed at Montebourg.

"They are professional slanderers," said Woerth. "It is unbelievable how they defile people."

Bettencourt, now 87 and embroiled in a legal battle with her daughter over the family fortune, on Monday announced that she would declare all of her foreign assets to comply with French tax laws.

© 2010 AFP

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