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 this past April. It seemed even more improbable in June, when a gleeful French politician regaled me with more gory details. But when, sometime last week, 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 to listen to Nicolas Sarkozy, who appeared on television Monday night to explain. And the result? I still don't really know what happened.
Here are the facts, or as many of them 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'Oréal fortune, and the richest woman in France. About three years ago, Liliane's daughter, Françoise, sued her mother, who had bequeathed some of that wealth to a "friend," François-Marie Banier, a 63-year-old society photographer. Among other things, Liliane gave Banier paintings by Picasso and Matisse, cash, and an island in the Seychelles. Françoise 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 then, during the course of the lawsuit, Liliane sacked some of her domestic staff, apparently because they sided with Françoise. This was a mistake.
The butler, as 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 Françoise, and Françoise 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.
But then, just when it seemed the thing could get no worse, another sacked employee, the Bettencourt accountant—"Claire T."—declared that her job had involved stuffing cash into envelopes to hand out to French politicians. "They all came to pick up their envelopes, sometimes as much as 100,000 [euros], or even 200,000 [euros]," she told a Web site. Sarkozy, she said, was among them.
Uproar. Chaos. And now denials. An official investigator has cleared the minister of wrongdoing. Claire T. is hedging. Speaking on television Monday night, Sarkozy said it was "shameful" that such allegations should ever have been made. He 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 ever 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 single 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 this 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 like democrats. And this is what hurts Sarkozy, who was, after all, elected 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 friends.
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 fist. After all, Liliane's father, the founder of L'Oréal, 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 budget minister whose wife had the misfortune to be hired by the Bettencourts, he is now the labor minister. As such, he is in charge of an extremely unpopular pension reform, due to be presented this week and bound to be opposed by trade unions, socialists, and even Communists—they still exist in France—of all kinds. In his election campaign, Sarkozy promised to "break with the ideas, the habits, and the behavior of the past"—and yet the past has come back to haunt him more than he could have imagined.