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The Bettencourt Affair Heats Up

Trade unions plan demonstrations.

A Union Syndicale Solidaires flyer depicting Eric Woerth Liliane Bettencourt and Nicolas Sarkozy

A Union Syndicale Solidaires flyer depicting Eric Woerth, Liliane Bettencourt and Nicolas Sarkozy.

Photo By Courtesy Photo

PARIS — The Bettencourt affair is ratcheting up pressure on France’s labor minister Eric Woerth.

This week, Woerth is set to propose a pension reform to parliament that would increase the minimum retirement age to 62 from 60 countrywide. The trade unions, which oppose the change, have planned a massive strike and some of their leaders have publicly claimed Woerth’s no longer a credible negotiator.

His standing has been weakened substantially, most recently due to growing concern over a conflict of interest related to the drama gripping the upper crust of France’s political and social establishment.

The Bettencourt affair began in December 2007 when Françoise Bettencourt Meyers brought a lawsuit against photographer François-Marie Banier. She alleges that Banier exploited the weakness of her mother, 87-year-old Liliane Bettencourt, who gave him assets valued at about 1 billion euros, or $1.29 billion. Banier denies any wrongdoing, while Bettencourt argues she is sound and acting on her own free will.

It was reported this past weekend by Le Journal du Dimanche that police did not find the scraps of paper they were after when searching Bettencourt’s house Wednesday. According to testimony by a former maid, the papers had allegedly been used by Banier and Bettencourt’s financial adviser, Patrice de Maistre, to increase their influence over her. Ex-accountant Claire Thibout had also reportedly revealed information regarding the papers to Judge Isabelle Prévost-Desprez.

Woerth publicly backtracked last week about his role in the Legion of Honor de Maistre received in 2008. Woerth decorated de Maistre when he was Woerth’s wife’s boss at Bettencourt’s holding company, but he had never before acknowledged playing a part in securing the award for de Maistre. Three letters backing up the fact have reportedly surface, according to the French press.

Earlier in the summer, Woerth was questioned about alleged illegal political donations.

The Union Syndicale Solidaires — a solidarity union — has printed off a flyer picturing Bettencourt in the foreground and Woerth and President Nicolas Sarkozy in the background. The flyer, which will be handed out at the demonstrations, reads: “‘Il n’y a plus d’argent pour les retraites’ qu’ils dissent…Redistribution des richesses!” (in English, “‘There’s no more money for pensions’ they say… Redistribution of wealth!”).

Meanwhile, a confidential letter written by Bettencourt Meyers in 2007 to the ex-accountant of her mother was published in Le Figaro newspaper Friday, causing some to question the former employee’s neutrality in the Bettencourt affair.

“It’s a letter that’s been in the dossier for months; it is not at all a scoop,” said Olivier Metzner, Bettencourt Meyers’ lawyer on Friday, adding it’s a nonissue.

A copy of Bettencourt Meyers’ letter to Thibout appeared in the newspaper with one change — each woman’s address was blacked out.

Dated July 11, 2007, the note reportedly was written following a talk between Thibout and Bettencourt Meyers, who thanked the accountant for sharing information that corroborated “our suspicions notably about the abusive attitude of certain people in Madame Bettencourt’s entourage. We can imagine the delicate situation in which you find yourself and therefore are sensitive to your commitment to bring us, when the time comes, your assistance and we thank you.”

Bettencourt Meyers wrote that, unless Thibout acted in bad faith, she would be paid a compensation of 800,000 euros, or $1.03 million at current exchange, if she were laid off.

As reported, in late August, Thibout was questioned largely about the compensation she received from Bettencourt Meyers in late 2008, after Thibout left Bettencourt’s employ. At the time, a sum of 400,000 euros, or $515,374, and a letter were referenced.

Thibout’s earlier declarations to the police — including her claims that Bettencourt had made election campaign donations greater than is legally authorized — helped set off a maelstrom in France’s political circles this summer. Thibout was quoted by news Web site Mediapart in early July that Sarkozy had received cash from the Bettencourt family.

Bettencourt is L’Oréal’s largest single shareholder.

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