Sarkozy minister embroiled in secret tapes scandal

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A scandal over secretly taped conversations involving France's richest woman, Liliane Bettencourt, threatened on Sunday to engulf a high-profile minister in President Nicolas Sarkozy's cabinet.

Labour Minister Eric Woerth, who is leading the government's pension reform, was forced to hit back after his wife was linked to the furore over the tapes reportedly revealing that the 87-year-old billionaire plotted to evade taxes.

"Enough is enough. My wife is going to file a complaint," Woerth said in an interview with several French media. He vehemently denied any wrongdoing.

Woerth's wife Florence managed part of Bettencourt's financial affairs from 2007 until this year and her ties to the heiress of the L'Oreal cosmetics fortune have come under scrutiny following reports of the secret tapes.

The conversations -- transcripts of which were published by the Mediapart website last week -- reveal that Bettencourt allegedly hid money in Swiss bank accounts while making big donations to friends in the governing UMP party.

The tapes were recorded by Bettencourt's former butler and have brought a new twist to a legal saga between the billionaire and her daughter, Francoise Bettencourt-Meyers, who sees her mother as no longer fit to manage the family fortune.

The makeup heiress ranks 17th on the Forbes list of the world's billionaires, with a fortune estimated at 20 billion dollars (16 billion euros).

The scandal comes at a delicate time for Sarkozy who is seeking to push through an overhaul of the pensions system in the face of opposition from the unions who have called for nationwide strikes.

Rushing to Woerth's defence, Higher Education Minister Valerie Pecresse called the attacks "obviously an attempt to destabilise an important minister, who has a crucial responsibility at this time".

Socialist opposition deputy Arnaud Montebourg called on Woerth, formerly the budget minister, to step down to allow the "truth to be known" about Bettencourt's financial dealings.

"It seems to me that it would be extremely difficult for Eric Woerth to stay at his post in a government that has made dismantling tax havens a priority," Montebourg said on Saturday.

"We had a budget minister who was also a treasurer for the UMP and whose wife worked to help Mrs Bettencourt with her tax fraud," he said.

Woerth shot back that he had become a "target" of the opposition because he was leading talks on pension reform and said his wife was an "employee, not a manager" of the firm that helps manage the Bettencourt fortune.

Considered a star in Sarkozy's cabinet, Woerth angrily insisted that he had a proven track record for fighting tax fraud, saying that "in Switzerland, I was public enemy number one".

Woerth is also said to be a friend of Patrice de Maistre, the financial adviser who allegedly is heard telling Bettencourt in the taped recordings to move 80 million euros out of Switzerland following a Franco-Swiss tax accord.

French police last week questioned the ex-butler and a computer expert over the tapes recorded between May 2009 and May 2010 in Bettencourt's villa in the posh Paris suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine.

The scandal over the butler's tapes erupted just two weeks before a photographer is to go on trial to answer charges from Bettencourt's daughter that he took advantage of her elderly mother when he accepted lavish gifts from her.

The photographer, Francois-Marie Banier, received masterpiece paintings, cash and insurance policies worth nearly one billion euros from Bettencourt.

Bettencourt's lawyer has accused the daughter of pressuring the butler to spy on his employer, but there have also been reports that the man wanted to take revenge after she fired a few of his co-workers.

© 2010 AFP

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