Bettencourt scandal engulfs Sarkozy, regardless of guilt or innocence

I was awed by the complexity of “l’affaire Bettencourt” the first time it was explained to me, with much rolling of eyes, in Paris in April. It seemed even more improbable in June, when a gleeful French politician regaled me with more gory details. But sometime last week, when this story — now a full-blown French political scandal, involving cash bribes, a rich widow and a double-crossing butler — suddenly threatened to engulf the president of France, I decided to focus harder.

Dutifully, I sat down Monday night to listen to Nicholas Sarkozy, who appeared on television to explain. And the result? I still don’t really know what happened.

Here are as many of the facts as I can squeeze into a column of reasonable length: The figure at the heart of the story is Liliane Bettencourt, an 87-year-old society beauty, heir to the L’Oreal fortune and the richest woman in France. About three years ago, Liliane’s daughter, Francoise, sued her mother, who had bequeathed some of that wealth to a “friend,” Francois-Marie Banier, a 63-year-old society photographer. Among other things, Liliane gave Banier paintings — Picasso, Matisse — cash and an island in the Seychelles. Francoise alleged that her mother was senile. Liliane declared that her daughter was dull, unattractive and jealous.

That alone would have kept the French entertained for the summer. But during the course of the lawsuit, Liliane sacked some of her domestic staff, apparently because they sided with Francoise. This was a mistake.

The butler, it turned out, had been taping her conversations for weeks, using a tiny recorder hidden on his cocktail tray. After he lost his job, he gave the recordings — more than two dozen CDs’ worth — to Francoise, who gave them to the police. Lo and behold, there was Liliane, sounding vague about where she’d misplaced her millions. And there was Liliane’s chief financial adviser, outlining elaborate tax dodges and boasting of having hired the wife of the French budget minister in order to give his machinations the air of respectability.

Just when it seemed things could get no worse, another fired employee, the Bettencourt accountant — “Claire T.” — declared that her job had involved stuffing envelopes with euros to hand out to French politicians. “They all came to pick up their envelopes, sometimes as much as E100,000, or even E200,000,” she told a Web site. Sarkozy, she said, was among them.

Uproar. Chaos. And now, denials: An official investigator has cleared that budget minister of wrongdoing. Claire T. is hedging. In his interview Monday night, Sarkozy said it was “shameful” that such allegations had ever been made and blamed the tsunami of bad press on people who feel threatened by his economic reforms.

Which leaves us . . . where, exactly? Will we ever know if he took the envelopes? Will we find out if Liliane knows what happened to her Picasso? I suspect not, but it doesn’t matter: This scandal has already damaged Sarkozy, possibly beyond repair, because it confirms every popular stereotype about the French political and financial elite.

The various characters in this drama toss around hundreds of millions of euros as if it were Monopoly money. They toss insults at one another as if the situation were an 18th-century comedy of manners. They dismiss the tax system as something that doesn’t apply to them, and meanwhile they cut the pensions of the peasants.

They talk and act, in short, like an aristocracy, not democrats. And this is what hurts Sarkozy, who was elected in 2007 precisely because the French were sick of the Chiracs and the Mitterrands, with their mistresses in government apartments, their double bookkeeping and their shady business acquaintances.

There is even something creepily retro about this scandal, which feels as if it should have happened in the France of the 1930s, back when parliamentary democracy was weak, fascism was rising, the Soviet-backed Communist Party was popular and government ministers were stealing money hand over foot. After all, Liliane’s father, the founder of L’Oreal, had a fondness for fascist politics and supported the Vichy regime. Liliane’s angry daughter, by contrast, is married to the grandson of a French rabbi who died in Auschwitz.

As for that French budget minister whose wife had the misfortune to be hired by the Bettencourts: He is now the labor minister and, as such, is in charge of an extremely unpopular pension reform, which is scheduled to be presented today and is certain to be opposed by trade unions, socialists and communists — they still exist in France — of all kinds. In his campaign for the presidency, Sarkozy promised to “break with the ideas, the habits and the behavior of the past” — yet the past has come back to haunt him, more than he could have imagined.

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