French minister furious about L'Oreal stink

22nd June 2010, Comments 0 comments

A French minister lashed out Monday at "charlatan" critics who accuse his wife of turning a blind eye to tax evasion as she helped manage the 16-billion-euro fortune of France's richest woman.

"They are charlatans, because it is false!" said Labour Minister Eric Woerth, a high-flyer in President Nicolas Sarkozy's right-wing government who in a previous post led a major crackdown on tax evasion.

He was repeating his vehement denial of any wrong-doing by his wife after the French opposition demanded he be investigated for his ties to L'Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt, who was taped allegedly plotting tax evasion.

"I have nothing to be ashamed of. My wife has nothing to be ashamed of," an indignant Woerth told France 3 television, adding that the accusations were "vile and disgraceful."

"The role of my wife was to invest the L'Oreal dividends paid each year to Mrs Bettencourt... in a fully transparent and fully legal manner," said Woerth, who has already threatened to sue two of his most outspoken critics.

Woerth, a star in Sarkozy's government who was known as "Mr Clean," on Monday announced that his wife, Florence Woerth, would quit her job at the firm handling the 87-year-old billionaire's financial affairs.

Florence Woerth also denied Tuesday being aware of any financial fraud on the part of Bettencourt and confirmed she would step down from her job.

Bettencourt has been at the centre of a political storm since last week when secret tapes revealed she had allegedly conspired to hide money in Swiss bank accounts while making donations to friends in Sarkozy's UMP party.

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

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

The butler's tapes are the latest twist in a long-running family feud between the billionaire and her daughter, who claims Bettencourt is mentally unfit after she gave more than a billion euros to a photographer friend.

The photographer, Francois-Marie Banier, is to stand trial in two weeks to answer charges, pressed by Bettencourt's daughter, that he took advantage of the ageing heiress but judges may delay the hearings to examine the tapes.

Opposition Socialist deputy Arnaud Montebourg declared that the link between Woerth, his wife and Bettencourt created "the impression of a revolting type of collusion."

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," he said. "There should be an investigation."

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

The minister, who is currently tasked with leading the government's unpopular pension reform, has threatened to sue both Montebourg and Joly, who he has called "professional slanderers."

The Socialist party urged Sarkozy to "put an end to the doubts and the trouble caused in our country by this affair," while the Communist party asked Prime Minister Francois Fillon to suspend Woerth until he can "prove his innocence."

But Fillon told parliament that his labour minister was an "honest man who has done no wrong" and who continued to have his "full confidence."

Bettencourt on Monday announced that she would declare all of her foreign assets to comply with French tax laws.

© 2010 AFP

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