French police question L'Oreal heiress over scandal

Liliane Bettencourt during a TV interview on 14 July 2010
Image caption Mrs Bettencourt was questioned as a witness, her lawyer said

Police have questioned France's richest woman, L'Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt, over claims of illegal political donations and tax evasion.

Investigators visited the 87-year-old at her home near Paris to ask about Swiss bank accounts and a Seychelles island allegedly used as a tax haven.

Both issues were mentioned in secret recordings made by a former butler.

Last week, prosecutors asked to question Labour Minister Eric Woerth over linked claims.

'Old memories'

On Monday, Mrs Bettencourt's lawyer said she was questioned as a witness for about two hours at her home in the chic Paris suburb of Neuilly.

George Kiejman said that although he was not present at the questioning, he understood that it focused on Mrs Bettencourt's two Swiss bank accounts, the island in the Seychelles and his client's alleged ties with Mr Woerth.

The recorded conversations between Mrs Bettencourt and her financial adviser, which were leaked to the French press, allegedly show that she had sought to use the accounts to escape French taxes.

Mrs Bettencourt earlier admitted tax evasion, promising to put her affairs in order.

The recordings are also alleged to suggest Mrs Bettencourt was a generous donor to French President Nicolas Sarkozy's 2007 presidential election campaign and to a political association run by his top fundraiser and now labour minister, Eric Woerth, and that those donations exceeded the legal limit.

Both Mr Woerth and Mr Sarkozy deny any wrongdoing.

Mr Kiejman said he understood that Mrs Bettencourt recalled dining with Mr Woerth, but "concerning the financing of political parties, she confirmed it was never a focus of interest for her, but rather for her (late) husband (Andre Bettencourt)".

However, the lawyer added that the questioning "was about memories that are in some cases very old, and my client had not necessarily kept the details in mind".

A government report two weeks ago said Mr Woerth did not use his former position as budget minister to spare Mrs Bettencourt from tax inspections.

Mr Woerth is expected to be questioned by police in the coming days.

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