Bettencourt scandal: Key players

It started out as a dispute between the heiress to a cosmetics fortune and her family. Then the row over Liliane Bettencourt's finances escalated as far as the former French President, Nicolas Sarkozy.

The case against him has now been dismissed, but others are still facing prosecution.

The affair remains a tangled saga of names, connections, claims and rebuttals. The BBC News website profiles key players in the political drama that has gripped the French public.

Liliane Bettencourt

Image caption Reports say Bettencourt mother and daughter are not on speaking terms

The story starts with Liliane Bettencourt, now 87, and the richest woman in France.

She is the heiress to the L'Oreal cosmetics fortune and holds a 27.5% stake in the company.

Her total wealth is put at about 17bn euros ($21bn; £14bn).

Twenty years ago, she befriended the society photographer Francois-Marie Banier, 62.

Over the years, she gave him gifts worth around 1bn euros. These included cash, life insurance policies and artworks by Picasso and Matisse.

Her daughter, Francoise Bettencourt-Meyers, took the matter to court.

She said Mrs Bettencourt was mentally incompetent and had been exploited by Mr Banier.

Mrs Bettencourt said she was a free woman, in full control of her faculties, and her daughter would just have to accept it.

But the dispute has now widened far beyond its origins.

In 2010 prosecutors opened a separate investigation into Mrs Bettencourt's tax affairs after secret recordings of conversations between the heiress and her wealth manager came to light.

The recordings, made by Mrs Bettencourt's butler, were passed to the police by her daughter.

Transcripts published by the news website Mediapart appear to refer to undeclared bank accounts in Switzerland and the Seychelles.

Mrs Bettencourt admitted tax evasion and promised to put her affairs in order.

But Mrs Bettencourt's political connections came under the spotlight.

Prosecutors began a separate inquiry into Mrs Bettencourt's donations to Nicolas Sarkozy's conservative party, the UMP.

Nicolas Sarkozy

Image caption The Bettencourt affair contributed to negative publicity for Mr Sarkozy

The criminal investigation into the former French president for allegedly receiving illegal funding from Mrs Bettencourt has been dropped.

He lost his presidential immunity from prosecution in mid-June 2012, after his election defeat, and in July of that year, police carried out searches at his Paris home, offices and a law firm in which he owns shares.

It had been alleged that tens of thousands of euros were allegedly funnelled to Mr Sarkozy's 2007 presidential campaign by Mrs Bettencourt's office.

Individual campaign contributions in France are limited to 4,600 euros (£3,700) annually.

Mr Sarkozy had consistently rejected all accusations of impropriety.

Eric Woerth

Image caption Eric Woerth quit Mr Sarkozy's government in 2010 over the Bettencourt affair

The former French labour minister was also treasurer for the UMP for eight years.

He ran the party's finances at the time of the presidential election in 2007, when Mr Sarkozy was elected.

Mrs Bettencourt's former accountant Claire Thibout has accused Mr Woerth of taking delivery of undeclared campaign donations from the L'Oreal heiress. She says he received 150,000 euros in cash for the UMP in March 2007.

Mr Woerth has vehemently denied the accusations, saying he never received a single illegal euro. But the Bettencourt affair drove him to resign in 2010.

He said he was the victim of a witch hunt by the left because of his responsibility for pension reform and his plan to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62.

But in February 2012, he was put under criminal investigation for influence peddling - accused of securing France's highest award, the Legion d'honneur, for Mrs Bettencourt's financial manager, Patrice de Maistre.

In his previous role as budget minister, Mr Woerth had responsibility for pursuing tax dodgers.

Questions have now been raised about whether he turned a blind eye to Mrs Bettencourt's tax evasion.

A prosecutor says he informed the budget ministry of his suspicions about Mrs Bettencourt's tax affairs in January 2009. Mr Woerth denies having blocked an investigation.

He is expected to face trial for his alleged role in the affair.

Florence Woerth

Image caption Florence Woerth helped to manage the Bettencourt fortune

To complicate matters still further, Mr Woerth's wife used to work for Mrs Bettencourt as an investment adviser.

She was employed by Patrice de Maistre, Mrs Bettencourt's wealth manager, but resigned in 2010 after she and her husband were accused of a conflict of interest.

In the secret tapes, Mr de Maistre says clearly that he gave the job to Mrs Woerth after being asked by Mr Woerth to employ her.

Patrice de Maistre

Image caption So far Patrice de Maistre is the only one of the suspects to have been detained

Patrice de Maistre was Mrs Bettencourt's wealth manager. His company, Clymene, had as its sole function the investment of the estimated 278m euros that Mrs Bettencourt drew annually from her stake in L'Oreal.

He was detained by Bordeaux police for 88 days in early 2012. He was released after posting bail of 4m euros.

He denies accusations by Claire Thibout, who says he asked her for 150,000 euros, which he promised to give "discreetly" to Eric Woerth at a dinner.

In the tapes recorded by Mrs Bettencourt's butler, he is heard to tell the heiress that Eric Woerth is "very nice, and also he's the man who is in charge of your taxes... He's a friend."

Investigators are interested in 4m euros which he allegedly transferred to France from a Bettencourt bank account in Switzerland in 2007-2009.

Mr de Maistre was awarded the Legion d'Honneur. Eric Woerth denies it was in return for employing his wife.

Mr de Maistre is also expected to face trial for his alleged role in the affair.

Claire Thibout

Image caption Claire Thibout says Mr Sarkozy received envelopes of Bettencourt cash before becoming president

Ms Thibout was formerly Mrs Bettencourt's accountant.

She told prosecutors that in March 2007, she had been involved in withdrawing 150,000 euros in cash from Mrs Bettencourt's accounts.

She said she herself took out 50,000 euros - the maximum she was authorised to withdraw - and handed the money to Patrice de Maistre.

Police have checked bank records and have confirmed the withdrawal.

The money was to be given to Mr Woerth in plain envelopes as a donation for the UMP, she said.

Ms Thibout admitted she herself had not witnessed the handover.

Francois-Marie Banier

Image caption Francois-Marie Banier allegedly received expensive gifts from Mrs Bettencourt

Described as an aesthete, Francois-Marie Banier made his name as a photographer. His work has been published in Le Figaro and the New Yorker.

In his youth, Francois-Marie Banier was the friend of 1960s cultural icons like Salvador Dali and Samuel Beckett.

But his friendship with Mrs Bettencourt angered her family. Mrs Bettencourt's daughter, Francoise Bettencourt-Meyers, called him "the predator".

In December 2009, a court ruled that Mr Banier did have a criminal case to answer for "abuse of mental fragility".

Mr Banier went on trial in July 2010, but the case was quickly adjourned. He denied all the charges, saying he did not take advantage of Mrs Bettencourt.

In December 2010, he made an out-of-court settlement with Francoise Bettencourt-Meyers, under which he will not benefit from her mother's fortune.

But he remains under investigation by the authorities, and is expected to face trial for his alleged role in the affair.

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