French police question L'Oreal heiress

26th July 2010, Comments 0 comments

Police probing a financial scandal that has rocked President Nicolas Sarkozy's government questioned France's richest woman, L'Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt, on Monday, her lawyer said.

Fraud squad officers questioned the 87-year-old billionaire for two hours at her home in the chic Paris suburb of Neuilly, lawyer Georges Kiejman told reporters, but shed little light on her alleged links to members of Sarkozy's government.

The questioning focused on her two Swiss bank accounts and an island in the Seychelles and also touched on her alleged ties to Labour Minister Eric Woerth, who is at the centre of a scandal that has embarrassed the government.

Secret recordings of conversations between Bettencourt and her financial advisor appear to show that she had sought to use the Swiss accounts to escape French taxes, while the true ownership of the island is unclear.

The tapes -- made by a butler and leaked to the media -- also suggest that Bettencourt was a generous donor to Sarkozy's 2007 election campaign and to a political association run by his top fundraiser, Woerth.

Kiejman said Bettencourt recalled dining with Woerth, but "concerning the financing of political parties, she confirmed it was never a focus of interest for her, but rather for her husband," Andre Bettencourt, who died in 2007.

Monday's questioning "was about memories that are in some cases very old and my client had not necessarily kept the details in mind," the lawyer said.

The heiress's daughter, Francoise Bettencourt-Myers, has brought legal action claiming her mother is no longer mentally competent to manage her fortune, which is estimated at about 17 billion euros (22 billion dollars).

Woerth is now labour minister and formerly, as budget minister, was charged with fighting tax evasion. Both he and Sarkozy have denied any wrongdoing or conflict of interest, and several investigations are under way.

Reports and allegations pointing to Woerth have multiplied in recent weeks, with former employees of the family claiming politicians often visited to get money, but there has so far been no hard evidence to prove the claims.

Woerth is also due to be questioned by police in the coming days as part of an investigation into allegations of conflicts of interest and tax fraud, judicial sources said.

Police on Monday also searched some of Bettencourt's offices with her consent, the lawyer said.

He added that Bettencourt had agreed to give police details of the ownership of the island of Arros in the Seychelles, which was mentioned in the recordings as part of her estate said to be managed by a company in Liechstein.

The scandal has hit Sarkozy's party at a delicate time as he pushes through a bill to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62 despite fierce resistance from unions, and as he contemplates the 2012 presidential election.

A government report earlier this month said Woerth did not use his authority in his former post as budget minister to shield Bettencourt, France's richest woman, from the taxman.

Sarkozy nevertheless nudged Woerth to step down as treasurer of the ruling UMP party -- a role that has drawn accusations of a conflict of interest.

Those accusations have been fuelled by the revelation that Woerth's wife Florence worked for a company managing Bettencourt's estate while he was budget minister.

Sarkozy was drawn into the scandal when Bettencourt's former accountant, Claire Thibout, told police the billionairess had contributed 150,000 euros (190,000 dollars) to Sarkozy's campaign in 2007 through his fundraiser, Woerth.

Bettencourt-Myers says her mother is being manipulated by the people around her and accuses society photographer Francois-Marie Banier of using undue influence to get her mother to give him gifts worth nearly one billion euros.

© 2010 AFP

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