L'Oreal scandal: French minister to be quizzed by police

21st July 2010, Comments 0 comments

President Nicolas Sarkozy's government slipped deeper into scandal Wednesday as police moved to question a minister and his wife over their ties to billionaire L'Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt.

Labour Minister Eric Woerth and his wife Florence, who once helped manage Bettencourt's 17-billion-euro (21-billion-dollar) fortune, are under fire over allegations of conflict of interest and illegal party donations.

At Wednesday's weekly meeting of Sarkozy's cabinet, ministers agreed to give police investigators the go-ahead to question the minister, who insists he has done nothing wrong and is resisting calls to resign.

A summary of the cabinet, released by the government, said Woerth had been "authorised to appear as a witness" before officers working for the state prosecutor in the western suburbs of Paris where Bettencourt lives.

Earlier, police questioned Florence Woerth as a potential witness in the L'Oreal case. She was allowed to leave without charge, but the drip-feed of daily revelations and allegations continues to undermine the government.

The president has himself been forced to deny claims that he accepted cash from Bettencourt, but his credibility has been damaged by the scandal and his opinion poll approval ratings are as low as they have ever been.

Woerth has said he will step down as treasurer of Sarkozy's right-wing majority party, the UMP, but remains charged with the government's flagship legislation, a bill to reform of the pension system.

Sarkozy must pass the measure, despite fierce opposition from trade unions to pushing back the retirement age, if he is to have any hope of regaining political momentum before he runs for re-election in 2012.

Woerth was not at Wednesday's cabinet meeting because he was defending the bill in front a parliamentary committee discussing possible amendments.

The allegations against Woerth and Sarkozy are complex, but together they paint voters a picture of a political elite that is too cosy with the owner of one of France's biggest private fortunes.

"The most troubling part of the Woerth-Bettencourt affair is this conniving group," said leading Socialist opposition lawmaker Francois Hollande, referring to Woerth's former role as chief UMP fundraiser.

Before taking the work and pensions portfolio, Woerth was budget minister and in charge of hunting down wealthy tax dodgers and forcing them to disclose assets held abroad in havens like Switzerland.

At the same time his wife Florence worked for the wealth management company that was looking after the Bettencourt fortune.

Secret recordings of Bettencourt talking to Florence Woerth's boss Patrice de Maistre -- leaked to the media -- seem to show that she was attempting to hide some of her cash outside France to avoid tax.

Worse, for Woerth and Sarkozy, Maistre is heard on the tapes saying that he hired Florence Woerth "to please" her husband, with the implicit suggestion that this might help them curry favour with the tax authorities.

Even as the scandal of the tapes was erupting, a former Bettencourt family accountant came forward to allege that Woerth had himself received 150,000 euros in cash from De Maistre to fund Sarkozy's election campaign.

The minister firmly denies any conflict of interest, and ministers have accused the websites and news media that have repeated the allegations of mounting a smear campaign worthy of the Fascist tactics of the 1930s.

De Maistre, the accountant who made the cash allegations and the butler who made the illegal recordings have all been interviewed by police.

No date has yet been set for Woerth to appear for questioning, but last week the minister said he hoped it would happen quickly. "I am very impatient to explain myself before justice," he said.

© 2010 AFP

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