L'Oréal scandal: it's far from over yet

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Medals and cash

Mediapart's revelations led to the opening of several judicial investigations, firstly managed out of the prosecutor's office in Nanterre, a western suburb of Paris close to Neuilly, home to Liliane Bettencourt. Those investigations remain today the most potentially damaging for President Nicolas Sarkozy and his ruling UMP party, and their judicial outcome is unaffected by the reconciliation announced Monday between Liliane Bettencourt and her daughter.

Down and out: Eric Woerth. © Reuters Down and out: Eric Woerth. © Reuters
The first of these involve the suspicion that Nicolas Sarkozy's 2007 presidential election campaign received illegal cash funds. Liliane Bettencourt's former accountant Claire Thibout in July told Mediapart - and the police - of preparations she had been involved in in 2007 to withdraw 150,000 euros in cash for Liliane Bettencourt's wealth manager Patrice de Maistre, who himself had implied that this sum was destined for Sarkozy's then-campaign treasurer, Eric Woerth.

A judicial investigation was subsequently opened into suspected ‘illegal funding of a political party or campaign.' Although Thibout could provide no material proof of the claim, it has been partially substantiated by records of accounts, verbal evidence and the private diaries of François-Marie Banier.

The second, politically sensitive chapter of the Bettencourt affair is the suggestion that Woerth was involved in influence peddling. According to conversations contained in the ‘butler tapes', the former budget minister and, until November, labour minister intervened directly to ensure that his wife Florence was hired by Liliane Bettencourt. Just several months after this, he personally delivered the Légion d'honneur, France's highest award of civil merit, to Patrice de Maistre, Bettencourt's wealth manager for whom Woerth's wife Florence had by then begun working.

The butler's secret recordings also revealed that Liliane Bettencourt and her close advisors were involved in a vast tax fraud operation, with significant undeclared sums hidden in Swiss bank accounts. Meanwhile, as Mediapart revealed in June, the L'Oréal heiress received a tax refund in 2008 of 30 million euros - a result of the tax ceiling - when Woerth was budget minister.

Even though the investigations are currently inactive, the enquiry into the suspected influence peddling and of the investigation into the suspected illegal financing of Sarkozy's presidential election campaign are ongoing. They have both now been transferred out of the hands of Nanterre public prosecutor Philippe Courroye, and placed with magistrates in the judicial jurisdiction of Bordeaux.

Contacted Monday by Mediapart, a spokesperson for the Bordeaux public prosecutor's office said it had still not received the case files.

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English version: Graham Tearse

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The Bettencourt affair is much more than a family feud that pitched France's richest woman against her daughter. Ever since Mediapart's initial revelations of the scandal, it has also engulfed President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Mediapart has now compiled its extensive reports into one detailed, explanatory book, L'Affaire Bettencourt, un scandale d'Etat, ('The Bettencourt affair, a scandal of state'), currently available only in French, and published on October 7th, 2010, by Don Quichotte.