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French government caught in family fortune dispute

 FILE - This March 4, 2010 photo shows Liliane Bettencourt,  during a press conference at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris. An inheritance dispute ove...
 FILE - This Nov. 20, 2009 file photo shows French author and photographer Francois-Marie Banier in front of his portrait of Irish writer, dramatist a...

France Heiress Affair

FILE - This March 4, 2010 photo shows Liliane Bettencourt, during a press conference at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris. An inheritance dispute ove...

France Heiress Affair

FILE - This Nov. 20, 2009 file photo shows French author and photographer Francois-Marie Banier in front of his portrait of Irish writer, dramatist a...

What started as a family inheritance dispute over the fortune of L'Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt has ensnared an influential minister who also runs the finances of President Nicolas Sarkozy's political party _ causing a new headache for the French leader and his government.
At root is a court case alleging that a colorful French artist bilked Bettancourt, France's richest woman, out of more than (EURO)1 billion of her vast fortune.
But reported leaks of telephone conversations involving the 87-year-old billionaire have broadened the case, fanning claims of a conflict of interest by Labor Minister Eric Woerth, whose wife Florence held a high-ranking post for the last three years at a firm that helped manage Bettencourt's fortune.
Woerth confirmed on BFM television Tuesday that his wife will leave Clymene, a firm that managed part of Bettencourt's riches, because "didn't get along well with her boss."
As a former budget minister and a leader in the fight against tax havens, Woerth has been in the crosshairs because his wife was working for an heiress who had parked some of her money in overseas accounts.
The controversy has emerged on the sidelines of a 2 1/2-year legal campaign by Bettencourt's only child _ Francoise Bettencourt-Meyers _ against a man whom she accuses of bilking her mother out of cash and art worth (EURO)1 billion.
Bettencourt-Meyers' case against Francois-Marie Banier, 62, for exploitation is expected to take place over four days early next month. Banier faces up to three years in jail and a (EURO)75,000 fine.
The court case took a new dimension last week with the publication of recordings of Patrice Le Maistre, who was Florence Woerth's boss and the main manager of Bettencourt's fortune, by online news service Mediapart. It has posted online sound files of Le Maistre allegedly speaking with Bettencourt _ and describing his contact with the presidential palace over the court case.
In one, he appears to ask Bettencourt to sign checks to Sarkozy, Woerth, and the junior minister for higher education, Valerie Pecresse, the report said.
Woerth has said that Bettencourt contributed to the party legally _ respecting the (EURO)7,500 contribution cap for individual candidates to political office.
Mediapart said the recordings were given by Bettencourt-Meyers to financial investigators on June 10 and centered on conversations between her mother and her advisers _ part of the daughter's effort to prove that her mother's frailty was preyed upon by Banier.
Bettencourt has defended the gifts she gave to Banier.
In September, a French prosecutor dropped his investigation into the affair after finding that Bettencourt was in full possession of her mental and physical capacities and that Banier hadn't taken advantage of her.
The daughter, as a member of L'Oreal's board of directors, is in line to inherit all of her mother's shares in L'Oreal one day, giving her ownership of more than one quarter of the cosmetics giant.
As for the fallout for the government, Woerth sought to defend his and his wife's honor in a raucous parliamentary session Tuesday.
"Never, I say never, have I given the slightest instruction to the tax services about the situation of Madame Bettencourt or of L'Oreal," he said, as howls of protest from the opposition nearly drowned out his speech.
"My integrity, and that of Florence, is total," Woerth said, before sitting down to pats on the backs of his fellow ministers and applause from majority back-benchers.
While budget minister, Woerth was a point man in a French campaign with other countries to crack down on tax havens that deprive countries tax revenues _ which could help pare down France high state debt.
Political leaders on the opposition left have claimed Woerth had a conflict of interest, called for an independent investigation, and insisted that the case exposes two-track justice in France: one for the rich, and one for the not-so-rich.
Starting long before his current government roles, Woerth has been a central player in the financing of Sarkozy's conservative UMP party and its predecessor. He remains the party treasurer today.
___
Associated Press Writer Laurence Joan-Grange contributed to this report.


Updated : 2021-09-20 04:22 GMT+08:00