French minister in L'Oreal heiress row under fresh pressure

27th June 2010, Comments 0 comments

A French minister embroiled in a row over tax evasion by France's richest woman came under fresh pressure Sunday after allegations a Peugeot car firm heir met him when he wanted to avoid a tax probe.

The Journal du Dimanche newspaper said Robert Peugeot dined with Labour Minister Eric Woerth just days after his gold ingots were stolen late last year by burglars who broke into his Paris home.

The paper said the gold was initially valued at 500,000 euros (620,000 dollars) but its estimated value was later reduced to 150,000 euros, probably because Peugeot wanted to avoid an enquiry by tax authorities.

The Journal du Dimanche said Peugeot dined with Woerth a short time after the theft because, according to sources the paper did not identify, "he was afraid of an inquiry into the origin of his gold."

The minister denied he intervened on Peugeot's behalf.

The French government on Sunday rallied around Woerth, who, along with his wife, is embroiled in a political row over tax evasion by Liliane Bettencourt, the 87-year-old heiress to the L'Oreal cosmetics empire.

On Saturday, President Nicolas Sarkozy voiced "total" support for Woerth, who has denied his wife Florence turned a blind eye to tax evasion as she helped manage Bettencourt's 16-billion-euro fortune.

Woerth, who has denied any wrongdoing by himself or by his wife, is a rising star in Sarkozy's government who was known as "Mr Clean" and in a previous post as budget minister led a major crackdown on tax evasion.

The head of the opposition centrist Modem movement, Francois Bayrou, said Saturday the Bettencourt affair had "weakened" both Woerth and the government.

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.

The 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.

© 2010 AFP

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