French heiress in political row is worth £12bn

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The Independent Online

The heiress at the heart of the political-donations storm that has rocked France is the nation's third wealthiest person in an annual rich list, with her fortune up by 40 per cent this year to €14.4bn (£12bn).

The furore over alleged cash handouts to conservative politicians by Liliane Bettencourt, the 87-year-old heiress to the L'Oréal fortune, and her late husband has shaken President Nicolas Sarkozy and the labour minister, Eric Woerth.

In its top 500 list of France's wealthiest people, the weekly magazine Challenges placed Mrs Bettencourt third behind Bernard Arnault, the chief of the luxury group LVMH, and the Mulliez family, the owners of privately held retailer Auchan.

"The family fortune of the founder of the world's No 1 cosmetics firm has gained more than 40 per cent and returned to pre-crisis levels," the magazine reported on its website. Mrs Bettencourt's wealth rose to €14.4bn in 2010 from €10.1bn the previous year, it said, describing the last year as the end of the crisis for the rich. She was France's third-richest last year as well.

Mrs Bettencourt, who joined L'Oréal as an apprentice at the age of 15, inherited the group in 1957. Since 1974, her family and the Swiss food group Nestlé have controlled about 54 per cent of the capital and 72 per cent of the votes in L'Oréal through their joint venture, Gesparal. Mrs Bettencourt also has a stake in Nestlé.