If French President Nicolas Sarkozy is forced to abandon some of his most prized policies, he can always blame it on the butler.
The butler in question says he was just trying to protect his boss - France's richest woman and heiress to the L'Oréal cosmetics fortune, 87-year-old Liliane Bettencourt. But by making secret recordings of conversations between Ms. Bettencourt and the manager of her $22-billion fortune, he unwittingly unleashed a political storm that is threatening to obliterate Mr. Sarkozy's government.
An already unpopular Mr. Sarkozy is now facing the biggest crisis of his presidency, after allegations were published yesterday that he was given nearly $200,000 in illegal donations from Ms. Bettencourt and her husband to help finance his presidential campaign.
Labour Minister Éric Woerth is facing similar allegations and fighting for his political life, after the butler's secret tapes revealed that he had solicited a job for his wife managing Ms. Bettencourt's finances while he was finance minister, and then ignored reports that she was evading taxes.
Mr. Sarkozy and Mr. Woerth have denied the charges against them, but observers say it's unlikely they can avoid the political fallout for much longer. Opposition parties are calling for a judicial inquiry. Even members of Mr. Sarkozy's UMP party are demanding that he go on national television to explain his role in "L'affaire Bettencourt."
Ms. Bettencourt's finances became the centre of media attention more than two years ago, when her estranged only child, Françoise Bettencourt-Meyers, 56, took legal action to prove that jet-set photographer François-Marie Banier had taken advantage of the elderly Ms. Bettencourt's frailty and convinced her to hand over more than $1.3-billion.
The court heard last week that Ms. Bettencourt's ex-butler, Pascal Bonnefoy, who was horrified at how she was being treated, hid a tape recorder in the bone china brought to her office and recorded conversations between her and Patrice de Maistre, 63, manager of her fortune and head of her holding company, Clymene.
The tapes showed that Ms. Bettencourt is deaf, often confused and avoided paying taxes by keeping much of her fortune in Swiss bank accounts. They also revealed that Mr. Woerth had solicited a job for his wife with Ms. Bettencourt while he was finance minister and was running a high-profile campaign to catch wealthy tax cheats. An even bigger bombshell for the government was the news that Mr. Woerth had approved a $39-million tax rebate for Ms. Bettencourt, even though the government had not examined her finances for more than 10 years.
The latest allegations come from Ms. Bettencourt's former accountant, Claire Thibout. After speaking to police on Monday, she told the online news site Mediapart that Mr. Woerth and Mr. Sarkozy were part of a parade of conservative politicians who came to the Bettencourt mansion in the posh Paris suburb Neuilly-sur-Seine to have lunch and collect thousands of euros stuffed into unmarked brown envelopes.
She said Mr. Woerth, who was in charge of financing for the UMP, left with $200,000 in March of 2007, destined for Mr. Sarkozy's presidential campaign. She said Mr. Sarkozy regularly received cash-stuffed envelopes when he was mayor of Neuilly.
"Since Mr. and Mrs. Bettencourt were both deaf, they talked very loudly," she told Mediapart. "Everyone in the house knew that Sarkozy came to see the Bettencourts to pick up money. He was a regular."
Mr. Woerth denied any wrongdoing yesterday and dismissed calls to resign. Mr. Sarkozy did not directly address the allegations, but said he "would love it if the country could excite itself over the big problems … rather than to get wrapped up in the first horror, a slander with only one goal, to smear with no basis in reality."
But the Bettencourt affair is a big problem for Mr. Sarkozy. He has never been more unpopular and is already having trouble pushing through key policies.
Mr. Woerth is in charge of unpopular plans to change the French pension system, but observers say he no longer has the credibility to push the reforms through. Mr. Sarkozy had been planning to shuffle his cabinet in the fall, but political analyst Dominique Moisi says Mr. Sarkozy now has no choice but to get rid of Mr. Woerth and appoint a new government before parliament breaks for the summer.
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