A prominent French businessman with strong ties to cosmetics giant L’Oreal has been placed under investigation by the United States over charges that he collaborated with the Nazis during World War II.
Andre Bettencourt, 75, wrote numerous articles for two pro-Nazi publications during the war, one of which was financed by the Nazi government in Germany.
The accusations against Bettencourt first surfaced in the French media about 10 days ago. Bettencourt, a French senator and former Cabinet minister, resigned last year as deputy chairman of L’Oreal.
French Nazi hunter Serge Klarsfeld echoed the charges in a news conference here Tuesday, calling Bettencourt’s wartime writings “an appeal to genocide.”
Klarsfeld urged the United States to place Bettencourt on its “Watch List,” which would bar the industrialist from entering the country. He emphasized that he was pressing for the U.S. ban because it was one of the few tools available to use against Bettencourt, who has traveled to the United States many times for political and business purposes.
Bettencourt cannot be prosecuted in France for writing propaganda.
“Always I try to fight against not only the Nazis but their accomplices in France,” Klarsfeld said.
Eli Rosenbaum, director of the Office of Special Investigations, the U.S. Nazi- hunting arm of the Justice Department, confirmed Tuesday that an inquiry into Bettencourt’s wartime activities was under way.
The results of Klarsfeld’s own investigation “are being reviewed as a part of an inquiry by the Office of Special Investigations into whether Bettencourt is eligible to enter the United States,” Rosenbaum said in a Feb. 14 facsimile to Klarsfeld.
Klarsfeld said at the news conference that during World War II, Bettencourt was a journalist for a publication that was connected to the Nazi Ministry of Propaganda and the Gestapo.
In an Easter 1941 issue of La Terre Francaise, Bettencourt wrote: “Jews, hypocritical Pharisees… do not carry in themselves the possibility of redemption. Forever, their race has been forever sullied by the blood of the righteous. They will be cursed by all.”
He wrote in the 1941 Christmas issue of that publication, “The Jews of today… will be and are already loathed. Jews thought they had won the game. They succeeded to lay hands on Jesus and to crucify him. Rubbing their hands, they cried out, `Let his blood fall upon us and upon our children.'”
Bettencourt has apologized in the past for his writings. He also served in the Resistance during World Was II and received military honors. But Klarsfeld said Bettencourt’s service began 10 days before the liberation of Paris and consisted of raising U.S. funds for French prisoners-of-war.
“What he wrote against Jews is more important than being in the resistance” Klarsfeld said.
Bettencourt’s articles were first discovered last fall by Jean Frydman, a a French-Israeli businessman who has a lawsuit pending against the L’Oreal American subsidiary in New York.
Frydman attended this week’s news conference with Klarsfeld. In his $100 million lawsuit, Frydman and his brother, David, charge that they were ousted from a joint venture with a L’Oreal executive in order to appease Arab Officials. The company was trying to win business with Aran countries by complying with the Arab economic boycott of Israel. The Frydmans brought a similar case against the company in France, which they lost.
The Frydmans have stirred up publicity against L’Oreal as part of their ongoing suit. Last year, Jean Frydman took out a full page advertisement in The New York Times detailing L’Oreal’s compliance with the boycott. The case has been the subject of major news articles in Business Week, the Washington Post and Newsweek.
In the midst of this controversy, L’Oreal took actions last year that were seem as efforts to remedy relations with Israel and the Jewish community. The company pledged $1 million to help finance a campaign in Israel to lower the high rate of traffic accidents.
In the fall, L’Oreal announced a wide range of investments in Israel, including opening a manufacturing plant there.
In December, Bettencourt resigned as L’Oreal vice chairman following protests about his World War II activities. Earlier, the head of L’Oreal’s Helena Rubenstein unit, Jacques Correze, resigned after French media publicized his 1948 conviction for war crimes.
However, Bettencourt remains chairman of Gesparal, the holding company that controls 53.7 percent of L’Oreal.
Bettencourt issued another apology Tuesday. “My activities in the French Resistance, together with my political career, are a clear demonstration that I was aware of the errors that are the subject of criticism today,” he said in a statement. “I have repeatedly expressed my regrets concerning them in public and will always beg the Jewish community to forgive me for them,” he said.
Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-defamation League, said Tuesday after the news conference that even though he had a great amount of respect for Klarsfeld, he was left with some questions surrounding the location and timing of the press conference.
“I am very skeptical as to the whole purpose of this undertaking.” Foxman said, adding that Jewish credibility was at stake. Foxman said he did not understand why a news conference was not held first in Paris or Washington. ADL had praised L’Oreal after an initial $7 million investment in Israel last May.
U.S. Reps. Eliot Engel (D.N.Y.) and Charles Schumer (D.N.Y.); U.S. Sen. Alfonse D’Amato (R.N.Y.); and N.Y.Gov. George Pataki issued statements at the news conference supporting Klarsfeld.