Inside the Fight for the Fortune of the World's Richest Woman, Liliane Bettencourt

The daughter of the chemist who founded L'Oréal, Liliane Bettencourt is heir to more than $40 billion

Photo: Horst Ossinger/picture-alliance/dpa/AP

Was L’Oréal heiress Liliane Bettencourt abused by a cadre of close associates who plundered her billions? Or was she in control of her faculties, giving away money and gifts to friends, politicians and even strangers?

These were the central questions in a trial that unfolded over the course of five weeks in southwestern France last month, where prosecutors and defense lawyers attempted to determine whether people took advantage of the 92-year-old.

Known in France simply as the Bettencourt affair, the story starts in 2007, when Bettencourt’s daughter, Françoise Bettencourt-Meyers, filed a lawsuit against her mother’s confidant, society photographer François-Marie Banier, claiming he abused Bettencourt’s weakness when she gifted him with cash, artwork and other extravagant presents totaling over $1 billion.

The initial lawsuit led to an investigation that uncovered questionable dealings involving Bettencourt’s fortune. Most notably it showed alleged payouts to France’s former budget minister éric Woerth at the time he was in charge of Nicolas Sarkozy‘s presidential campaign financing.

Ultimately, 10 defendants, including Woerth, stood trial in Bordeaux for allegedly exploiting Bettencourt. The trial concluded on Feb. 25, but the verdicts will not be announced until late May.

In the meantime, Bettencourt is living out the remainder of her life in “The White House,” her mansion in Neuilly-sur-Seine, too ill to attend the court battle waged over her inheritance.

The World’s Richest Woman

Bettencourt, the daughter of Eugène Schueller, the chemist who founded cosmetics giant L’Oréal, has always been portrayed in French media as France’s “Poor Little Rich Girl”: An only child who lost her mother at the age of 5, Bettencourt worked inside the company’s chemistry labs from the tender age of 15.

In 1950, she married businessman and politician André Bettencourt, who eventually became the French foreign minister before passing away in 2007. The couple had one child, daughter Françoise, in 1953.

After her father’s death in 1957, she inherited the family business. Today, Bettencourt’s fortune – more than $40 billion – is France’s largest and ranks 10th overall in the world, according to Forbes. Depending on the day, she’s arguably the world’s richest woman, but she’s largely kept to herself through the years, living behind the gates of her enormous mansion in Neuilly-sur-Seine, one of Paris’s most expensive suburban neighborhoods.

Claims and Counterclaims

Banier first met Bettencourt when he was hired to photograph her for the French magazine Egoiste in 1987. They became close over the years – so close that after showering Banier (and his boyfriend Martin d’Orveval) with over $1.25 billion, she ultimately decided to make him her heir.

Long estranged from her mother, Bettencourt-Meyers heard the news and promptly filed complaint against Banier in 2007 for exploitation of weakness, initiating what became a very public saga.

After hiring France’s top two lawyers, the mother and daughter began negotiations. But when they failed to reach an agreement by late 2009, Bettencourt-Meyers took the next legal step, formally requesting her mother be placed under court custody. And indeed, Bettencourt has been monitored by court-appointed guardians since 2011, when it was determined that she has dementia and “moderately severe Alzheimer’s.”

But the lawsuit really came to a head in mid-2010, just as Banier came up for trial in Paris. That’s when Bettencourt-Meyers gave police a series of secret recordings made by Bettencourt’s butler.

Leaked to media shortly afterwards, they allegedly feature several of Bettencourt’s inner circle and financial advisors discussing tax avoidance, Swiss bank accounts, the alleged cash handovers to Woerth and the creation of a Seychelles island tax haven for Banier.

Banier’s Paris trial opened and closed on the same July day after police requested time to review tapes. And then, in November 2010, government officials suddenly and inexplicably transferred the entire process as far from Paris as possible, assigning it to Bordeaux instead.

That’s where the trial finally kicked off on Jan. 26. But this time, Banier was joined by nine other people accused of exploiting the heiress.

Awaiting the Verdict

At the trial’s late February conclusion, prosecutors formally asked the tribunal to acquit five of the 10 defendants, including Woerth, due to insufficient evidence. They demanded the maximum sentence for Banier, however, including three years in prison without reprieve, a $425,000 fine, and the seizure of his properties. Prosecutors have asked for a similar fine and prison term for Banier’s boyfriend d’Orveval, with the possibility of probation after 18 months.

Banier has adamantly denied taking advantage of Bettencourt’s fraility and refuted the charge it was his suggestion – overheard by a maid – that Bettencourt adopt him.

“Liliane wanted to do things for me, to ease my life,” Banier testified, The New York Times reports. “I refused things like a mansion. But she took it so poorly. It s really hard to cross that extraordinary woman.”

In court, Banier’s defense team admitted that he was “showered in gold,” and he conceded just hearing the numbers caused “enormous dizziness.”

A slight man with dark eyes, Banier is an extremely talented photographer whose portraits have hung in museums and galleries across the world. During his trial, Vanessa Paradis‘s mother spoke on his behalf as a character witness, telling the court that Banier, godfather to her granddaughter Lily-Rose Depp, was “a gentle man, very good with children.”

To some, he’s a master manipulator who belittled Bettencourt, calling her a “fatty” and mocking her appearance. Bettencourt-Meyers blames him for driving a wedge between her and her mother.

But to others, his behavior is more akin to that of a child. Banier’s own lawyer compared him to “a crazy dog who doesn’t know how to stop, like an immature child but not a manipulator.”

“For a long time,” attorney Pierre Cornut-Gentille added, “[Bettencourt] was her father’s daughter. Very early she married André Bettencourt… She was never been recognized for herself. Then voilà! A half-madman storms into her life, the son of a Hungarian Jewish émigré who recognizes her for who she is. And she likes that.”

Prosecutors disagree, claiming Banier robbed Bettencourt not only of her money, but also “of her family life, love and support of those close to her.”

“The strategy of Mr. Banier was not just to divide and conquer,” Bettencourt-Meyers testified. “It was to break and conquer. To break our family. It was programmed destruction.”

The verdicts are expected to be announced on May 28.

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