June 23, 2010 3:00 am

Bettencourt saga turns into Agatha Christie whodunnit

They could all be characters in one of Agatha Christie's finest mysteries. There is the aged and extremely wealthy heiress, the dashing photographer who has become her favourite, her estranged daughter, the butler who spies on his employer, the loyal financial adviser who manages her billions round the world, and a Swiss multinational hovering in the background.

Throw in a leading politician engaged in transforming his country's finances and his wife with her own career working for the heiress's family office. This all makes a pretty colourful and explosive cocktail. No, it is not The Mysterious Affair at Styles set in a grand mansion in some idyllic English village. It is a real life whodunnit that is gripping the entire French establishment. At the heart of the matter is a battle over the multibillion euro fortune of Liliane Bettencourt, France's richest woman, who together with Nestlé is the controlling shareholder in the world's leading shampoo group, L'Oréal. Her daughter Françoise Meyers-Bettencourt has launched legal action to claw back the money and gifts, including an island in the Indian Ocean, which her mother has doled out to the photographer François-Marie Banier. In order to win her case coming to court next month, the daughter must prove her mother's mental fragility.

That is bad enough. But now tapes leaked in the course of the legal battle have raised questions over the role of one of Mrs Bettencourt's financial advisers, Florence Woerth. For Mrs Woerth is none other than the wife of Eric Woerth, the former French budget minister and now labour minister in charge of the delicate reform of the country's pension system.

The tapes, which were recorded by the butler, carry an alleged conversation between the heiress and her chief financial adviser, Patrice de Maistre, also the boss of Mrs Woerth, over the allocation of her considerable offshore assets.

The leaking of the tapes has inevitably intensified the political brouhaha over the Bettencourt affair and the heiress is now trying to put a stop to all the fuss. This week she said she would collaborate with the French tax authorities and repatriate her offshore assets. Nonetheless, what continues to raise eyebrows in France is the fact that Mrs Woerth was involved in managing Mrs Bettencourt's fortune at a time when her husband, then budget minister, was spearheading his country's campaign to clamp down on tax havens.

Mrs Woerth vigorously denies any wrongdoing and insists she was simply an employee of Mrs Bettencourt's family office. Her task, she adds, was to reinvest the dividends of Mrs Bettencourt's substantial holding in L'Oréal. Mr Woerth, too, has been equally vigorous in denying any wrongdoing and has also noted that the Bettencourt row erupted conveniently on the very day he unveiled his controversial pension reforms.

That said, Mrs Woerth will be leaving her job next month, putting an end to any further political controversy. Yet in turn this raises another controversy. Indeed, if she has done nothing wrong, why should she be the one to sacrifice her career rather than her husband, especially as he is no longer budget minister - a position that could have perhaps created a conflict of interest? One female French Green politician yesterday questioned why the men in a partnership never seemed to be asked to surrender their careers at moments of controversy over potential conflicts of interests.

In the end, whoever makes the sacrifice, there are a few basic rules of common sense. One of the first should be that if you are a leading political figure with public responsibilities you cannot simply behave like an ordinary citizen. Along with power and influence, such a position imposes certain demands not just on the person who holds the role but on members of his or her family. Therefore when Mr Woerth was offered the job of budget minister, he and his wife should have reflected on the consequences for their careers and come to an arrangement on who should make the sacrifice. You simply cannot have it both ways.

Below the belt

BNP Paribas's leadership must be feeling it has been dealt a blow below the belt by Fitch. The rating agency's decision to downgrade the leading French bank by a notch to AA minus arguing it no longer fits comfortably alongside a peer group of more highly rated banks (such as HSBC and Santander) must hurt.

After all, BNP Paribas considers, probably rightly, that it has come out more strongly than most from the crisis. It acquired Fortis, claims to have had no meaningful exposure to subprimes, and its latest quarterly profits beat expectations by rising 46 per cent. But Fitch is still worried by the bank's reliance on capital markets to drive profits.


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