The heiress at the heart of a political donations storm that has rocked France is the nation's third wealthiest in an annual rich list, with her fortune up by 40 percent this year to 14.4 billion euros ($18.14 billion).

A furor over alleged cash handouts by Liliane Bettencourt, heiress to the L'Oreal fortune, and her late husband to conservative politicians has shaken President Nicolas Sarkozy and Labor Minister Eric Woerth, in charge of pension reforms.

In its Top 500 list of France's wealthiest people, weekly magazine Challenges placed Bettencourt, 87, third behind luxury group LVMH chief Bernard Arnault and the Mulliez family, owners of privately held retailer Auchan.

The family fortune of the founder of the world's number one cosmetics firm has gained more than 40 percent and returned to pre-crisis levels, the magazine reported on its website.

Bettencourt's wealth rose to 14.4 billion euros in 2010 from 10.1 billion euros the previous year, it said, describing the last year as the end of the crisis for the rich. She was France's third richest last year as well.


Bettencourt, who joined L'Oreal as an apprentice at the age of 15, inherited the group in 1957.

Since 1974, her family and Swiss food group Nestle have controlled about 54 percent of the capital and 72 percent of the votes in L'Oreal via a joint venture, Gesparal. Bettencourt also has a stake in Nestle.

The total wealth of the 500 biggest families has risen 25 percent in a year to 241 billion euros from 194 billion euros, Challenges said.

After a dismal 2008, France's CAC 40 index of leading shares

hit a floor in early March 2009 and surged by 65 percent in the following 10 months, boosted by returning growth and resilient corporate profits. It is down 10 percent this year.

LVMH's Arnault, who also has a 7.1 percent stake in retail giant Carrefour, increased his fortune by more than 55 percent to 22.7 billion euros. The Mulliez family's wealth rose by 27 percent to 19 billion euros.

The magazine said that in relative terms, the top 500 fortunes accounted for a smaller part of France's economy falling to 12.4 percent of gross domestic product from 17 percent three years ago.

With the crisis, the rich are less rich and, above all, they weigh less heavily on the economy, Challenges said.