The seemingly unstoppable wildfire of the L'Oréal family feud and political funding scandal threatened yesterday to engulf President Nicolas Sarkozy.
A former accountant for France's wealthiest woman, Liliane Bettencourt, told investigators that she had made an illegal €150,000 (£125,000) cash donation to the Sarkozy presidential campaign in 2007.
She also said that Ms Bettencourt, 87, chief shareholder in L'Oréal, had illicitly funded many centre-right politicians, including Mr Sarkozy in the years before he became president.
The Elysée Palace angrily denied the claims. President Sarkozy – without referring to the allegations directly – made a public appeal for an "end to calumnies, whose only aim is to smear, without any kind of basis in reality".
The accusation was made to police – and repeated in an interview with an investigative website – by Claire T, an accountant who had helped to handle Ms Bettencourt's €17bn fortune for two decades until 2008. She said that the elderly billionairess's family fund manager, Patrice de Maistre, had handed over €150,000 in cash to the Sarkozy campaign in 2007 – 20 times the legal limit on personal contributions.
The latest allegations, although denied by all those involved, threaten to turn the saga into a full-blown affaire d'état or state scandal. At a time when ordinary French people face tax rises and spending cuts, opposition politicians on the left and far right are making hay of the suggestion that Ms Bettencourt's irregular tax affairs were protected by "hired" political friends.
Unlike almost all other politicians on the centre-right, President Sarkozy has been virtually immune, until now, to allegations that he funded his political career illegally.
The L'Oréal family feud already menaces the career of Mr Sarkozy's employment minister and former budget minister Eric Woerth. He is accused of turning a blind eye to systematic tax evasion by Ms Bettencourt in return for campaign funds that he received as Mr Sarkozy's party treasurer. Mr Woerth again rejected these claims yesterday as "utterly baseless".
His denials have been undermined, however, by the revelation last month that he solicited a job for his accountant wife, Florence, with the company that manages Ms Bettencourt's personal fortune.
It has already been revealed that President Sarkozy tried to intervene – on the side of Ms Bettencourt – in a two-years-old legal action between the L'Oréal heiress and her estranged only child, Françoise.
All these revelations come from secret tapes of the billionairess's conversations with advisers and courtiers recorded over 12 months by Ms Bettencourt's former butler. The tapes, handed to police last month, have become Exhibit Number One in the legal action brought by Françoise Bettencourt-Meyers. She accuses her mother's friend, a society photographer, Francois-Marie Banier, 63, of abusing her mother's "weakness of mind" to persuade her to hand over €1bn in cash, art works and life insurance policies.
Like the butler who made the secret tapes, the accountant, Claire T, left Ms Bettencourt's employment – in somewhat disputed circumstances – as part of this family row. She is, therefore, accused by Ms Bettencourt's advisers and lawyers of being an unreliable witness. In her statement to the website Mediapart yesterday Claire T (whose full name has not been released) said that Ms Bettencourt, and her late husband, André, had illicitly funded Mr Sarkozy and other centre-right politicians for years. "Politicians were constantly marching through the house, especially at election time," she said. "They all came to pick up their envelopes, sometimes as much as €100,000, or even €200,000."
The Bettencourt mansion is in Neuilly-sur-Seine, the wealthiest town in Paris, on the western boundary of the city of Paris. The town's former mayor is Nicolas Sarkozy. Claire T said that the future president was a frequent dinner guest before he became President. "Nicolas Sarkozy used to get his envelope too. It happened in one of the little ground-floor salons next to the dining-room. It usually happened after the meal," she told Mediapart, a website set up by former employees of the newspaper Le Monde. "Everyone in the house knew that Sarkozy too went to see the Bettencourts to pick up money."
Claire T also said that she had personally withdrawn €50,000 in cash as part of a €150,000 donation to be given to Mr Woerth in unmarked envelopes before Mr Sarkozy's successful 2007 election campaign.
Mr Woerth, treasurer of the ruling centre-right Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP), and treasurer of Mr Sarkozy's 2007 campaign, told French television yesterday: "I've been treasurer of my party for eight years and I think no one can accuse me of anything. Everything is clear, everything is clean."
Under French law, individuals can only donate €7,500 a year to campaign funds. Only €150 can be given in cash.
Timeline of a scandal
December 2009 Liliane Bettencourt's daughter begins a civil case to try to have Ms Bettencourt declared legally irresponsible.
16 June 2010 Secret recordings of conversations between Ms Bettencourt and her wealth manager are passed to police. Reports say they include details of donations made to members of the ruling centre-right UMP party, including the minister Eric Woerth.
17 June Mr Woerth says he did not procure a job for his wife, Florence, at the firm that manages the heiress's fortune.
21 June Mr Woerth announces that his wife will step down from her role at the wealth management company.
25 June Mr Woerth denies having blocked a tax investigation into possible fraud by Ms Bettencourt.
27 June Mr Woerth's successor as budget minister says the authorities will review of Ms Bettencourt's tax returns.
6 July A former bookkeeper for Ms Bettencourt alleges that Nicolas Sarkozy's party received illegal donations. The President's office denies the claims.Reuse content