The French heiress and the president


Editor's note: President Nicolas Sarkozy, during a prime-time television speech today addressing the scandal, said he would seek new laws to avoid conflict of interest by ministers, members of the parliament and other officials.

PARIS, France — Separating fact from fiction has become a national pastime in the case that began as an inheritance dispute between France’s wealthiest woman, Liliane Bettencourt, and her daughter but gradually escalated into a full-blown political scandal, embroiling President Nicolas Sarkozy.

In the past month, prosecutors have opened inquiries into secret recordings in connection with Bettencourt’s decision to give part of her billions to a photographer accused of trying to exploit her — the origin of the mother-daughter dispute — accusations of tax fraud and yet another into alleged illegal campaign financing.

Although Sarkozy has denounced allegations that he illegally received campaign funds in 2007 as a libelous smear “without the slightest basis in reality,” he is expected to address the matter during a wide-ranging prime-time TV interview today. But it is unlikely his explanations will silence the bevy of critics or help his approval ratings, languishing about 30 percent.

A recent survey by the Ifop public opinion polling institute revealed if that the first round of a presidential election were held today, the sitting president would receive only 26 percent of the vote, on par with the Socialist party candidate.

Members of the opposition party, who have been calling for Sarkozy to explain himself ever since the affair started gathering steam, are using the scandal to bash their opponent and position themselves to challenge him in the 2012 election. Segolene Royal, for instance, who ran for president against Sarkozy in 2007, has come out swinging, declaring publicly that “the Sarkozy system is corrupt.” Apparently, she is not alone in her thinking. 

A poll conducted for the newspaper Liberation this month found that 64 percent of French people considered their political leaders to be corrupt.

An analysis of the results suggests that politicians pay the highest price when image-tarnishing scandals erupt. But damage to the country’s reputation can be considerable as well.

Another Ifop poll revealed that 71 percent of the 958 people surveyed across a wide demographic spectrum judged that France was in decline, while 62 percent felt the country was lacking confidence in itself. Particularly disturbing in this “crisis of confidence,” the survey analysts wrote, is that it seems to affect in equal measure younger generations as much as the elderly, supporters on the left as well as the right.

With each scandal that tests the credibility of the country’s leaders, the French public becomes more wary, especially in light of the potent relationship between money and power that seems particularly pervasive within the current administration.

Take the case of two ministers who resigned this month amid allegations they were misusing state funds. The outcome could not have been different for Alain Joyandet, formerly the junior minister for cooperation and francophony, who rented a private jet at a cost to taxpayers of 116,500 euros to travel to Martinique for a meeting following the Haiti earthquake; or for Christian Blanc, the former junior minister in charge of development around the Paris region, who charged 12,000 euros worth of cigars to taxpayers — an amount he was asked to reimburse. Until their July 4 resignations, a climate of impunity seemed to reign in Sarkozy's conservative party.

Conversely, the government has rallied around Eric Woerth, the embattled labor minister and the person in charge of pushing through the Sarkozy’s pension reform who has taken the brunt of the public opinion beating in the Bettencourt case. He is expected to address lawmakers Tuesday on the government’s plan to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62.

Unanswered questions remain about the millions Bettencourt is said to have in Swiss bank accounts and the revelations that Woerth’s wife, until she resigned last month, worked as a financial adviser to the billionaire. In the course of their investigation, police searched the offices of the wealth manager with whom Woerth’s wife worked.

Woerth finally received some good news ahead of his speech to lawmakers about the president's pension plans and ahead of Sarkozy’s TV appearance. A report by the General Inspectorate of Finance released online Sunday exonerated the UMP treasurer of any wrongdoing, concluding that Woerth did not take any measures to “ask for, hinder, or steer” any tax audit involving the heiress to the L’Oreal fortune. Still, an estimated 60 percent of French found it shocking that, as minister Woerth was able to hold the title of party treasurer without any conflict of interest. Woerth has not ruled out resigning from that post.

And the website, Mediapart, that reported on the juiciest aspects of the story — including statements made by a former Bettencourt accountant, who claimed she was asked to withdraw 50,000 euros as part of a 150,000 donation allegedly to Sarkozy’s campaign — has also come under fire for shoddy journalism, especially since the woman later recanted some of her statements. Both sides are standing by their stories.

Meanwhile the trial of Francois-Marie Banier, the socialite accused of fleecing the 87-year-old heiress of more than 1 billion euros in gifts that included cash, paintings by Picasso and Matisse and life insurances policies, has been delayed pending the results of the investigation into the secret recordings. Francoise Bettencourt-Meyers has claimed that Banier preyed on and manipulated her frail mother during the two decades of their friendship. If convicted, he faces three years in prison and 75,000 euros in fines.

The public has followed the affair with waning interest as each new layer has seemed to add more confusion rather than offer clarification.

At the same time, the public trust continues to erode.