By  on October 8, 2010

PARIS — The French are calling it “Sarkogate” — and L’Oréal’s Liliane Bettencourt is the catalyst.

The name Bettencourt has become the proverbial lit match in France, sparking fires in most realms of everyday life here. The affair encompasses everything the public salivates over: class warfare, political scandal, vast riches, powerful conglomerates, family feuds and potential downfalls. It’s a 19th-century French novel being played out in the up-to-the-second media of the 21st. What started as a simple dispute between Bettencourt — the L’Oréal heiress who’s France’s wealthiest woman with an estate estimated at $21.61 billion — and her daughter, Françoise Bettencourt Meyers, over assets Bettencourt gave to French photographer François-Marie Banier, is now engulfing and engrossing an entire nation.

The scandal could impact L’Oréal’s future ownership. Yet more immediately, most people bet the affair will force Eric Woerth to step down as France’s labor minister for allegedly taking illegal funds to help finance Nicolas Sarkozy’s presidential campaign. And many believe the saga is helping to undermine Woerth’s boss and possibly any hopes Sarkozy may have of running for a second term as French president in 2012. His popularity has hit a low point. In a poll conducted in September by marketing firm Ifop for Le Journal du Dimanche newspaper, 67 percent of French people said they were “discontented” with Sarkozy. That month’s turnout was only marginally better than that of April, his all-time worst month in opinion ratings as president — when 68 percent of the populace was discontented.

“This affair reinforces the skepticism, the sentiment of defiance that the French have vis-à-vis politics in general,” said political scientist Pascal Perrineau.

All Paris is aghast as it watches the name of one of society’s most discreet and well-respected denizens being dragged through the courts and across the nation’s front pages.

“The Banier affair has split Paris in two by demonstrating those who are tight-lipped to the press — social and sophisticated (as described by [Honoré de] Balzac in “Le Père Goriot” or Proust), shocked but ultimately rather amused by Banier, or those who think he was done in by greed for power,” said one insider. “Then there are those not in the social loop, like [L’Oréal chairman] Lindsay Owen-Jones, who is frank about disliking Banier and blabbing to the press. [And who received 100 million euros, or $136 million, of his own from Bettencourt.]

“After the holidays, all social people could talk about was how they had been hounded by the press about Banier,” the source continued. “A sort of competition for ‘how many calls did you get from journalists’ [developed]. But none had talked. Banier is liked for being charming and funny but, [he is] ultimately monstrous. He’s respected for being the bohème — with the billion.”

Another insider said, “The Bettencourt affair has become like a saga, and everyone is sort of thrilled to know more. No one is for Banier because everybody knows there is a certain amount of sordidness there. Everybody probably knows that Liliane Bettencourt is [either] more or less gaga, or that she’s just very generous.”

The ongoing story is even impacting the art world. Paris’ Maison Européenne de la Photographie, for instance, just confirmed it has postponed a solo exhibition of Banier’s photographs, meant to open in early November. The decision was taken “considering the current news,” said a museum spokeswoman.

The largest damage, however, may be to Sarkozy. The Woerth-Bettencourt affair further crystallizes certain observers’ impressions that the French president — who vowed when elected to shake up the system — is really just out to enrich his cronies.

He’s long been known for having an unabashed penchant for and link with the rich and powerful. Nicknamed the “bling-bling president,” Sarkozy’s choice of holding his election-night party in 2007 in Le Fouquet’s restaurant with captains of industry and showbiz types chafed at many. So did Sarkozy’s holidaying on billionaire Vincent Bolloré’s yacht right after his win.

Without those overt displays, “the Woerth-Bettencourt affair wouldn’t have had as much of an impact,” said Stéphane Rozès, a political scientist and president of Conseils, Analyses et Perspectives.

Indeed, numerous French presidents before Sarkozy — such as François Mitterrand and Valéry Giscard d’Estaing — had been chummy with the high and mighty.

“But they simply did it with more discretion,” said Perrineau.

Sarkozy’s expensive taste has led him to become the protagonist of a book called “Le Président des riches” (or “The President of the Rich”), which was published in September. Penned by sociologists Michel Pinçon and Monique Pinçon-Charlot, its subtitle reads: “Une Enquête sur l’oligarchie dans la France de Nicolas Sarkozy” (or “An enquiry into the oligarchy of Nicolas Sarkozy’s France”). The book argues that since Sarkozy’s presidency, France has become a combat zone of a class war led by the wealthy and in which the battles are numerous and harsh. Its subject matter covers a wide swath of ground, from the dinner at Fouquet’s to tax policies to Sarkozy’s personal life. Countless members of the country’s upper crust are mentioned, and woven into several sections are references to the Bettencourt affair, as well.

Sarkozy’s love of the better things in life has come back to the forefront just as he attempts to enact draconian budget cuts to reduce France’s deficit.

“The French don’t like it when political power seems to be serving the power of money,” said Rozès. “That is to say, for the French, political power must be above all other powers. It’s the idea that political power must be at the service of the general interest.”

Vividly embodying how Bettencourt’s name has come to represent the worst aspects of French politics for some was a union poster brandished during a demonstration against a proposed pension reform in early September, when more than a million people hit the streets countrywide to show their disgruntlement about the minimum retirement age possibly being upped to 62 from 60.

Printed on blood-red-colored paper, the poster featured Bettencourt’s face in the foreground and that of Sarkozy and Woerth behind. The tag line read: “‘Il n’y a plus d’argent pour les retraites,’ qu’ils disent…Redistribution des richesses!” (or in English, “‘There’s no more money for pensions,’ they say…Redistribution of wealth!”).

The tentacular Bettencourt affair dates back to December 2007, when Bettencourt Meyers brought a lawsuit against Banier. She claims he exploited the weakness of her 87-year-old mother, who had given him assets valued at about 1 billion euros, or $1.39 billion at current exchange. Banier denies any wrongdoing, while Bettencourt argues she is sound and acting on her own free will.

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