French police search home of L'Oreal heiress

1st September 2010, Comments 0 comments

Police on Wednesday searched the home of France's richest woman in the latest twist in an ongoing scandal rocking President Nicolas Sarkozy's government, a source close to the enquiry said.

The search was ordered by a judge investigating whether a Parisian society photographer took advantage of 87-year-old Liliane Bettencourt, the heiress of the L'Oreal cosmetics empire, the source said.

Bettencourt was reportedly abroad but said in a statement that she was "outraged and shocked" at how police carried out the search, in which "safes were forced open" at her house in Neuilly-sur-Seine, west of Paris.

"Having absolutely nothing to hide, I of course accepted" the judge's request to conduct a search, her statement said.

"I am therefore awfully shocked to learn that the locks of my safes were forced open and the bedrooms of my staff searched. I do not understand how I could be treated this way when ... I am supposed to be the victim."

Several judicial investigations are under way into affairs linked to Bettencourt's fortune, including allegations of tax evasion and illegal campaign funding that have implicated Labour Minister Eric Woerth.

Woerth denies any wrongdoing, but has been politically weakened and the long-running investigation has undermined his and Sarkozy's attempt to push through pensions reform.

Bettencourt's estranged daughter Francoise Bettencourt-Meyers alleges people close to her mother have taken advantage of the heiress, whom she says is not mentally fit to manage her 17-billion-euro (22-billion-dollar) fortune.

"The way my daughter and this judge are hounding me proves that they both consider me strong enough to suffer their humiliations and attacks," Bettencourt wrote on Wednesday.

One of the investigations centres on recordings of conversations between Bettencourt and an adviser apparently plotting tax evasion.

Investigators questioned Bettencourt in late July about those tapes and, according to her lawyer, afterwards searched offices in her home in Neuilly.

© 2010 AFP

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