Court postpones trial of whether L'Oreal heir was coerced into giving away $1 bln to friend

NANTERRE, France (AP) — Judges on Thursday postponed a highly awaited trial on whether a schemer manipulated France's richest woman out of €1 billion ($1.2 billion) after secret recordings emerged suggesting the L'Oreal heiress was evading taxes by keeping millions in Swiss bank accounts.

The recordings have implications that reach beyond the trial, shaking the highest echelons of power in France and embarrassing the government — in part because the wife of a leading minister worked for the company managing Liliane Bettencourt's fortune.

The trial opened briefly Thursday, then closed hours later as the three-judge panel decided it needed more time to study the recordings made by Bettencourt's butler. They have been made public in recent weaks in leaks to the press.

Tainted by the government scandal and other problems, conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy's approval rating has sunk to a dismal 26 percent.

The murky legal case pits the heiress of the L'Oreal SA cosmetics empire against her only child. Her daughter, Francoise Bettencourt-Meyers, says a charming photographer manipulated her mentally weak 87-year-old mother into handing him part of her fortune.

Photographer Francois-Marie Banier is accused of exploitation and risks three years of prison, if convicted.

Banier, who insists he did not take advantage of his older friend, did not speak to reporters but cultivated an air of artistic mystery. With cameras rolling, he theatrically opened a sketchbook and started doodling.

The younger Bettencourt says her only goal is to protect her elderly mother and reunite the family, while her mother argues that she has her wits about her and can do whatever she wants with her fortune.

Angry sniping marked the trial's brief first day.

Banier lawyer Herve Temime said the butler "crossed an uncrossable line" by making 21 hours of recordings of the heiress talking to her advisers and described the trial as "nauseating." Bettencourt's lawyer, Georges Kiejman, said the secret recordings reminded him of spy tactics used in Nazi Germany.

The butler's lawyer, Antoine Gillot, has vouched for the authenticity of the recordings and the accuracy of excerpts leaked to the press.

In them, Bettencourt's financial adviser speaks to her as though to a child, and she is sometimes confused. The heiress' lawyer defended her mental acuity, saying she is simply hard of hearing.

At one point in the taped conversation, adviser Patrice de Maistre reminds Bettencourt that she signed over her private island in the Seychelles to Banier.

"I wanted to give him an island?" a puzzled Bettencourt asks, according to the media excerpts.

In an aside that has sent shock-waves through the government, Maistre was caught telling Bettencourt he hired Labor Minister Eric Woerth's wife as an investment adviser because the minister asked him to. Florence Woerth has since resigned, and the couple has denied there was a conflict of interest.

Until March, Eric Woerth was budget minister, in charge of pursuing tax dodgers. Woerth has been strongly backed by Sarkozy, and the government all week has been sharply fending off attacks from the leftist opposition over the affair.

In the tapes, Bettencourt and Maistre also are heard discussing undeclared Swiss bank accounts. Maistre told Le Figaro newspaper this weekend that the heiress had €78 million ($97 million) in two foreign accounts, and he promised to get her affairs in order.

Bettencourt is No. 17 on Forbes magazine's list of the richest people worldwide, with a net worth of $20 billion. Mother and daughter no longer speak and neither was present in court.