Burgled bullion and butlers spice up French political row

27th June 2010, Comments 0 comments

Burgled gold bullion, an eavesdropping butler, tax evasion, a minister and the super-rich L'Oreal and Peugeot heirs: a growing political row in France has all the ingredients of a blockbuster novel.

The man at the heart of it all is Labour Minister Eric Woerth, a high-flyer in President Nicolas Sarkozy's government who was until recently nicknamed Mister Clean.

Woerth was already making headlines in recent weeks as the man overseeing pension reform that is so unpopular that on Thursday hundreds of thousands of French took to the streets to protest against it.

But then on June 16 a website published transcripts of tapes secretly made by the butler of France's richest woman, Liliane Bettencourt, the L'Oreal cosmetics heiress with a fortune estimated at 16 billion euros (20 billion dollars).

The taped conversations between Bettencourt and her financial adviser reveal that the 87-year-old allegedly hid 80 million euros in Swiss bank accounts while making big donations to friends in Sarkozy's UMP political party.

The butler's tapes were 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.

But the affair ballooned when it emerged from the recorded conversations that Woerth's wife Florence worked for a company that managed part of Bettencourt's fortune.

French papers and opposition politicians were quick to ask if the Woerths knew of the alleged tax fraud and to note that Woerth last year presented Bettencourt's financial adviser with the Legion d'Honneur civic award.

Woerth, who in a previous post led a major crackdown on tax evasion, and his wife vehemently deny any wrong-doing.

On Saturday Sarkozy added his voice to government support for the minister, saying Woerth had his "total" confidence.

But the calls are growing for Woerth to put an end to an apparent major conflict of interest, even if few politicians have so far openly called for his resignation.

Green party member of parliament Noel Mamere joined the chrous on Sunday when he denounced Sarkozy's ministers as "the high priests of zero tolerance who apply to themselves the principle of impunity."

Woerth came under fresh scrutiny on Sunday when the Journal du Dimanche newspaper reported that another super-rich heir to a world-class French company had sought him out when he had tax problems.

The paper said Robert Peugeot, of the car manufacturer of the same name, dined with Woerth just days after gold ingots -- worth an estimated 150,000 euros -- were stolen late last year by burglars who broke into his Paris home.

Peugeot sought out Woerth because, according to sources the paper did not identify, "he was afraid of an inquiry into the origin of his gold." The paper noted that Woerth earlier this month awarded a Legion d'Honneur to Peugeot.

Woerth's advisors denied the minister had intervened in any way on Peugeot's behalf.

The Woerth affair comes at a time when many French are outraged by reports that several government ministers are living the high life at the taxpayer's expense while ordinary people are being told to tighten their belts.

© 2010 AFP

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