The Bettencourt Affair: 8 Found Guilty of Taking Advantage of the World's Richest Woman
A court in Bordeaux, France, found eight men guilty on Thursday of taking advantage of the world’s richest woman.
Among those sentenced to prison for exploiting 92-year-old Liliane Bettencourt were her chief financial advisor, a business associate and her closest “friend,” society photographer François-Marie Banier – who during a 10-year period received over $1 billion in gifts from the L’Oréal heiress.
The Bettencourt affair, as it is known in France, is an immense political and financial soap opera that will continue to spin out for years to come. At its heart is a decade-long battle for control of an estimated $40 billion fortune.
In the Bordeaux trial, 10 defendants, including various business associates, lawyers, accountants, a government cabinet minister and the heiress’s private nurse, were accused of exploiting Bettencourt’s confidence. Ultimately, nine of them stood trial after the nurse, Alain Thurin, tried to commit suicide the night before the trial was due to start. He has recovered and is expected to stand trial in the future.
Bettencourt, who suffers from mixed dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, neither testified nor attended the five-week trial, which ended in February.
During the trial, Banier defended accepting Bettencourt’s largesse, which included paintings by Picasso and Monet. He claimed she derived pleasure from bestowing gifts on him. “I refused things like a mansion,” he testified. “But she took it so poorly.”
Prosecutors and Bettencourt’s family, however, painted Banier as a manipulator who abused her generosity and failing mental health while conspiring to make himself her sole and unique heir.
On Thursday, the court pronounced eight of nine defendants guilty. Magistrates found Banier guilty of exercising “real psychological and moral control” over his aging patron and sentenced him to a maximum of three years in prison and a $412,000 fine. He was also ordered to pay a restitution of $175 million with interest to Bettencourt’s family. Banier’s boyfriend Martin D’Orgeval was also convicted and sentenced to 18 months in jail and a $165,000 fine.
Bettencourt’s chief financial advisor Patrice de Maistre, who ran her empire from her private estate in Paris, was also found guilty. Justices sentenced the 67-year-old financial manager to 30 months in prison, a $275,000 fine and restitution of $13 million.
France’s former budget minister éric Woerth, whose wife worked for de Maistre, was the sole defendant to be acquitted on charges of “abuse of weakness” and accepting donations during the 2007 presidential election.
Bettencourt’s daughter, Françoise Bettencourt-Meyers, and her grandsons were present on Thursday when the verdict was read out.
Following the verdict, Banier and D’Orgeval walked across the street to a café, while attorneys representing them told courthouse reporters the verdict would be appealed.
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