Before becoming a scandal about money, politics, art, history, café society and power, the Affaire Bettencourt, now threatening the Sarkozy presidency, is the story of two ferociously ambitious young Hungarian outsiders and their success at storming the citadels of the French establishment.
One, Nicolas Sarkozy, the son of a womanising émigré aristocrat and a doctor's daughter, used to be told by his (twice) remarried father on visiting Sundays that he would never amount to anything much in France, because of his foreign name, small stature and below-average school grades.
The other, François-Marie Banier, né Banyiaï, was regularly beaten by his Renault migrant worker turned ad-man father for being a dilettante, an aesthete, and a high-school drop-out. (By coincidence Pál Sarkozy, Nicolas's father, also dabbled in advertising for a while).
Mr Sarkozy has mentioned the slights he suffered as the least well-off boy of his chic school in Neuilly, Paris's richest suburb. Mr Banier neglected even to complete his baccalauréat, haunting luxury hotel lobbies from his teens on, becoming in rapid succession the favourite of such luminaries as the painter Salvador Dali, the Nobel-prize playwright Samuel Beckett, and the couturiers Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Cardin. The Communist poet Louis Aragon enthused about the first novel Mr Banier published, aged 22.
Mr Sarkozy came to the attention of Charles Pasqua, the Gaullist party stalwart and key power-breaker who was to help shape most of his career, with his first public speech at a national rally: he was just 20 at the time.
Today Nicolas Sarkozy is president of the French Republic, while François-Marie Banier, a polymath photographer, painter and novelist, has recently been ranked 917th richest individual in the world, having accepted fabulous gifts from a string of wealthy old ladies, ranging from the viscountess Marie-Laure de Noailles to the actress Silvana Mangano - and especially from his latest patron, Liliane Bettencourt, the 87-year-old L'Oréal heiress.
The two men, no longer so young (Mr Banier is 63, Mr Sarkozy 55) nor as pretty as they both once were, stand at each end of a glittering chain of achievements, events, relationships, networks and rivalries now threatening to engulf France in the kind of political meltdown not seen here since the 1930s.
Mr Sarkozy's poll ratings, already dire, have plunged to ominous lows, with fewer than 32 per cent saying they still trust him. The latest projections are that the 2012 presidential race wil be won by the lacklustre Socialist leader, Martine Aubry, who in a second-round run-off against Mr Sarkozy would win 52 per cent of the vote.
But that's only if the second round is a traditional contest between Right and Left. Other, more worrisome, figures show that French public opinion holds politicians of both main parties in equal contempt, with only the Front National's Marine Le Pen showing a strong improvement in her rating, albeit still behind the others.
If that trend isn't reversed, France could see a repeat of 2002, when the Front National won second place in the first round of presidential voting, allowing its leader - Ms Le Pen's father, Jean-Marie - to challenge Jacques Chirac in the second round.
All French scandals are complicated (they're never about something so depressingly simple as sex), partly because they hide within layer upon layer of secrets in a country which has never believed in transparency.
"Pour vivre heureux, vivons cachés" (To be happy, live hidden), a maxim of the 18th-century poet Jean-Pierre Claris de Florian, remains a byword here.
The political revelations of L'Affaire Bettencourt came out almost by accident. Françoise Meyers-Bettencourt, Liliane's daughter, 57, brought to court a case against Mr Banier, whom she accuses of abusing her elderly mother's trust to gain favour - specifically, being showered with gifts of cash and artworks.
This was three years ago, soon after the death of her father, Mrs Bettencourt's husband, André. (She may have feared that her newly-widowed mother was dangerously unmoored; after Bettencourt's death there was talk of Mr Banier being adopted by Liliane.)
The case dragged on. The daughter tried to prove that her mother's mind was befuddled. The mother refused a psychiatric evaluation, countering that her daughter was jealous of Mr Banier, who was "more amusing, more interesting" while Françoise was "dull" and had "no conversation."
Mrs Bettencourt's worth is estimated between 17 and 20 billion euros. "If you can afford it, it's very nice to be able to be generous," she recently said in a television interview.
If it wasn't for the Monopoly money amounts (993 million euros given to Mr Banier over four years in the form of Matisses, Picassos, life insurance contracts and a Seychelles island), it would look like every mother-daughter bitter feud, writ large.
Still handsome and elegant today, Liliane Bettencourt was for decades one of France's great society beauties. (The stylised woman painted in the early 1960s by the celebrated illustrator René Gruau, to figure on the golden cans of L'Oréal's best-selling Elnett hairspray, was modelled after Liliane. The hairspray container is unchanged today, an example of timeless design.) Françoise Meyers-Bettencourt, not to put a fine point on things, is rather plain.
Liliane's adored father Eugène Schueller, the founder of the L'Oréal fortune, was a notorious Collaborationist, who financed a number of fascist parties in the Thirties, was a Vichy regime enthusiastic supporter, and paid for the exfiltration to South America of some French Nazis at the Liberation.
Françoise married the grandson of Neuilly's Résistant rabbi, who died in Auschwitz.
Liliane Bettencourt's help – her butler, her secretary, her accountant, her driver – started taking sides. Those who showed too much favour to Françoise (or didn't hide their distaste for Banier, an increasingly frequent, often rude visitor) were fired. With compensation, but fired.
As it turns out, this was a spectacularly bad decision. The family's butler had started taping the conversations taking place in the expansive neo-Art deco Neuilly house, where Mrs Bettencourt has lived since commissioning it in 1951. (This is very much a tale of Neuilly, a kind of French South Kensington where the residents voted against having a second Métro line extended from Central Paris, because it would bring petty crime to their doors. Not long after that vote, Nicolas Sarkozy was elected Mayor, aged 28.) This was, the butler said, because he felt his boss was being taken advantage of.
Upon getting the sack, the butler went to Françoise (a mere 50 yards away, in a house almost as grand) and gave her a computer memory card containing the recordings, made on a tiny machine hidden on the drinks trays. (The Liliane-Banier camp counter that Françoise paid him all along to make them).
Three weeks later, Françoise handed 28 CDs of the recordings to the police. For good measure, she also gave them to an investigative website and a news magazine, which published very long excerpts. One can't but assume she had listened to them. Did she realise the conflagration they would trigger?
The recordings were dynamite. Not so much because, at times, Mrs Bettencourt did sound forgetful and hazy about the whereabouts of her immense fortune (she had, for instance, completely forgotten about two Swiss bank accounts containing over 100 million euros) and how much of it she'd given Mr Banier - but more because of the personalities and doings of her chief financial adviser and her lawyers.
Patrice de Maistre, the head of her "family office," a Jockey Club member, is heard advising her on where to hide large amounts of money from the French taxman (Singapore is in, now that Switzerland has become leaky). He boasts of having hired the then-Budget Minister Eric Woerth's wife, herself a former Rothschild banker, "to oblige him" - although he also badmouths Mrs Woerth, "who really puts on airs, playing too much the minister's wife."
Mr de Maistre angles to be given (tax-free, in Switzerland) a 60-foot sailing boat. He drops a few unsavoury comments about John Elkann, Gianni Agnelli's grandson, who is Jewish ("isn't it typical how they always gravitate to money?" he laughs, which Liliane interrupts with "I'm absolutely not anti-Semitic").
And he explains how cheap it is to contribute officially to a French politician's campaign, since individual gifts are capped at 7,500 euros. ("They are so grateful, and it really isn't much at all.")
In other recordings, lawyer and money manager discuss on their own how best to prevent Banier from getting even more. It makes for a riveting read – and a rare bird's eye view of the vernacular of France's super-rich, where tax evasion and influence-currying come naturally.
Having the wife of then minister in charge of tax employed, at the very least, in a place where fraud took place, was bad enough. How much did she know? asked the predictable headlines.
Worse was to follow. The usually tame French press took the bit between their collective teeth, and in the intervals between clamouring for Mr Woerth's resignation from his current job as labour and social affairs minister (a key post since he's in charge of pushing through Mr Sarkozy's great pension reform), went digging.
Soon, Mediapart, the investigative website, found another fired employee, an accountant, who blithely told how for years she collected large wads of cash from Mr and Mrs Bettencourt's bank to give to politicians in brown envelopes – most recently 150,000 euros to Mr Sarkozy's presidential campaign in early 2007.
The accountant was subsequently harshly grilled by the police and seemed to withdraw some of her accusations (she had been told by Mr de Maistre who the money was for, but had never actually seen it given out), then recanted her recant. Meanwhile the bank balances did show withdrawals for the various amounts she'd mentioned at the given dates.
"This proves nothing!" Mr Sarkozy's supporters and assorted lawyers roared. But by then it was of course too late – the general impression of cronyism and corruption was disastrous, compounded by the stonewalling, in time-honoured fashion, from the Elysée. (Earlier in the month, two cabinet ministers who'd abused their expenses in an unrelated polemic had to step down, which was seen as too little, much too late.)
Mr Sarkozy won't go and can't be investigated, because of the same presidential immunity that so often shielded Jacques Chirac. I wouldn't put good money on Mr Woerth staying, even though the current wisdom at the Elysée is that he is necessary to the pensions law, and that if he steps down Mr Sarkozy's most emblematic reform, on which he was hoping to be reelected, is toast.
But it's increasingly obvious that we have reached a paradigm shift, where the old Chirac saw, "Never admit to anything, never answer on anything", finally no longer applies in France.
The French, from a unique, centuries-old mix of Catholic and Marxist distrust hardwired in their collective psyche, have always despised money and mistrusted the rich.
At the very time when he is asking for belt-tightening and rallying together, Mr Sarkozy, the bling-bling president of the early days, the outraged victim of the Clearstream smear campaign, appears himself finally to have stepped over the line.
© Copyright Telegraph Media Group & Anne-Elisabeth Moutet 2010