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Will the Bettencourt scandal help the far right?

media Liliane Bettencourt on French television channel TF1 Photo: AFP / TF1

President Nicolas Sarkozy’s allies claim that publicising the Bettencourt affair is aiding and abetting the extreme right. That’s a strange accusation to foreign ears. But when Industry Minister Christian Estrosi compares the Mediapart website to “certain newspapers in the 1930s", most French people know what he is referring to.

In 1933 a shady financier Alexandre Stavisky made one dodgy deal too far. Stavisky had friends in very high places, including at least two ministers, and the centre-left government of the time tried to hush up the scandal.

French politics no stranger to scandals

When the affair began to unravel, Stavisky disappeared, later to be found dead in the ski resort of Chamonix. The police said it was suicide but some claimed that he had been killed to save the government further embarrassment.

The far-right press went to town, claiming that the scandal discredited the parliamentary system and a financial system they claimed was dominated by Jews. Fascist leagues, which were financed by some big businesses including perfume manufacturer Coty, joined in the agitation.

On 6 February 1934 the leagues organised a huge demonstration, many of whose participants were war veterans who came armed. It led to six hours of street-fighting, an attempt to storm parliament and 14 demonstrators being shot dead by the police.

Prime Minister Edouard Daladier was forced to resign and a new centre government formed. But the shock also contributed to the formation of the left-wing Popular Front, which was elected to government in 1936.

When fascism did come to power in France, it was wearing the invading Nazi jackboot and the uniform of the milice, which supported Marshal Philippe Pétain’s collaborationist regime.

Interestingly, L’Oréal funded the far right in the 1930s. Its headquarters were used as a meeting place by the secretive far-right Cagoule plot, which carried out assassinations and aimed to seize power in a coup.

Lilianne Bettencourt’s husband, André, was one of the plotters and went on to edit an anti-semitic collaborationist magazine, La Terre Française, during World War II, before switching to the resistance in 1943. Another cagoulard, Jean Filliol, was given a job at L’Oréal in Franco’s Spain, allowing him to escape punishment for his part in a wartime massacre.

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