World's richest woman Liliane Bettencourt dies aged 94
Daughter announces death of heir to French L’Oreal empire, who was world’s 14th richest person
Thursday 21 September 2017 17.39 BST Last modified on Thursday 21 September 2017 23.11 BST
Liliane Bettencourt, heir to the French L’Oreal hairspray empire and the world’s wealthiest woman, who was at the centre of a long-running French courtroom saga over alleged hangers-on who took advantage of her frailty to elicit money and gifts, has died aged 94.
Bettencourt, whose net worth was estimated at about €33bn (£29bn) this year, was the face of one of France’s biggest cosmetics conglomerates and had once captured the public’s imagination as the nation’s poor little rich girl.
She was the daughter of Eugène Schueller, a chemist and one-time Nazi sympathiser who made a fortune as the inventor of modern hair dye and founder of L’Oréal. Her mother died when she was five, leaving her alone with Schueller whose company she inherited.
Bettencourt hit the headlines in 2007 when members of her entourage were charged with exploiting her failing mental health – leading to a vast inquiry that threatened to engulf the then-president Nicolas Sarkozy.
When Bettencourt’s husband, the politician André Bettencourt, died in 2007, their daughter Françoise Bettencourt Meyers, decided to take legal action against her mother’s eccentric best friend, François-Marie Banier. The dandy photographer, artist and one-time society golden boy was accused of taking advantage of Bettencourt’s frailty to accept almost €1bn worth of gifts, including paintings, life insurance policies and a salary from L’Oreal.
Shocked domestic staff at Bettencourt’s mansion west of Paris whispered how the flamboyant Banier would pee in the flowerbeds, lie on Bettencourt’s bed with his shoes on and make requests for money.
Banier denied the allegations, but it was just the start of a multi-layered legal inquiry that became the nation’s soap opera.
The saga resulted in not only a public family feud but a major political scandal and courtroom drama when the investigation was extended to look at whether Sarkozy and other figures in his party had also taken advantage of the elderly Bettencourt, asking for money from her after it was declared that she had dementia.
The money, alleged to have been given in brown envelopes, was said to have funded Sarkozy’s 2007 presidential campaign.
The “Bettencourt affair” tarnished the latter half of Sarkozy’s presidency, and when he lost the 2012 election he was placed under formal investigation for illegal campaign financing and taking advantage of Bettencourt. But the charges against Sarkozy were dropped in October 2013 due to lack of evidence.
In 2015, the photographer Banier was convicted of exploiting Bettencourt and sentenced to three years in jail, fined €350,000 and ordered to pay €158m in damages. He appealed and last year received a suspended prison sentence and a fine but did not have to pay the vast damages.
In the meantime, other cases had opened around the affair, including a court case over the publication of secretly recorded conversations between Bettencourt and her wealth manager which were taped when her butler hid a recorder in her mansion.
Bettencourt had been declared unfit to run her own affairs in 2011 after a medical report showing she had suffered from “mixed dementia” and “moderately severe” Alzheimer’s disease since 2006. She was rarely seen in public after leaving the L’Oreal board in 2012.
“Liliane Bettencourt died last night at home,” her daughter Françoise Bettencourt Meyers said in a statement. “My mother left peacefully.”
Photographer jailed for multi-billion euro Bettencourt exploitation
François-Marie Banier has been sentenced to three years in jail and ordered to pay back €15m to L’Oréal heiress Liliane Bettencourt and her family
Angelique Chrisafis in Paris
Thursday 28 May 2015 17.34 BST Last modified on Friday 29 May 2015 00.00 BST
A French celebrity photographer has been found guilty and sentenced to two and a half years in prison for exploiting the mental frailty of Liliane Bettencourt, the ageing L’Oréal shampoo heiress, who showered him with gifts including Picasso paintings, life insurance funds and millions of euros in cash.
François-Marie Banier, who had befriended Bettencourt, 25 years his senior, arguing that he was the only person who made her laugh, was given a three-year sentence – six months of which was suspended – and ordered to pay a fine of €250,000 and pay back over €15m to the Bettencourt family.
But judges cleared Eric Woerth, a former minister in Nicolas Sarkozy’s government and campaign treasurer for his 2007 presidential campaign. He was acquitted of charges of exploiting Bettencourt’s frailty by taking an envelope of cash from the weak and elderly billionaire who suffers from dementia.
Woerth was also cleared of charges of influence-peddling. He had been accused of using his position of influence to secure favours from Bettencourt’s financial manager – urging him to employ his wife in exchange for receiving the Legion of Honour, France’s highest decoration. The court acquitted him of all charges.
The Bettencourt saga began in more than seven years ago as a family feud between mother and daughter in one of the richest families in France, but it sparked a political scandal as well a raft of judicial investigations including on tax evasion and illegal party funding.
In 2007, Bettencourt’s daughter began legal action claiming that Banier, a Paris socialite and photographer, befriended her ageing mother and taken advantage of her frail state of mind to persuade her to give him more than €1bn in artworks, insurance policies and cash. The long-running case gripped France and sent shockwaves through the political class, tarnishing Sarkozy, who was placed under formal investigation for illegal campaign financing and taking advantage of Bettencourt after being voted out as president in 2015. Those charges against Sarkozy were dropped in October 2013 due to lack of evidence.
Banier, now 67, who first met Bettencourt, 92, when he photographed her for a magazine, presented himself in court as a rich and well-connected celebrity photographer, a charming eccentric who did not need the money.
Bettencourt, who is estimated to be worth €33bn (£24bn) by Forbes magazine, was alleged to have found a new best friend in the outrageous and eccentric Banier. She showered him with so many gifts that even his own lawyer admitted in court that he had been “drowning in gold” and briefly made him her sole heir.
The court had heard how Bettencourt had been suffering from increasing dementia and, by 2011, was unable to tell what year it was.
From 2006 to 2010, Banier received gifts from Bettencourt worth €414m, including life insurance policies, paintings by Picasso, Matisse and Mondrian, manuscripts and cash. In court, Banier conceded that just hearing the figures sparked “an enormous vertigo”. But he said Bettencourt chose to bestow the gifts, it “gave her immense pleasure to do it” and she had been of sound mind. He said she got angry if he tried to turn down gifts. Most of the value of the gifts was paid back before the court case.
Patrice de Mestre, Bettencourt’s wealth manager, was sentenced to 18 months in prison for exploiting her frailty, as was her former lawyer. Martin d’Orgeval, Banier’s partner, was found guilty on the same charges and received a suspended sentence.
Banier and de Mestre will appeal against the verdicts
Bettencourt scandal: Key players
7 October 2013
From the section Europe Share this with Facebook Share this with Twitter Share this with Messenger Share this with Email Share
It started out as a dispute between the heiress to a cosmetics fortune and her family. Then the row over Liliane Bettencourt's finances escalated as far as the former French President, Nicolas Sarkozy.
The case against him has now been dismissed, but others are still facing prosecution.
The affair remains a tangled saga of names, connections, claims and rebuttals. The BBC News website profiles key players in the political drama that has gripped the French public.
Reports say Bettencourt mother and daughter are not on speaking terms
The story starts with Liliane Bettencourt, now 87, and the richest woman in France.
She is the heiress to the L'Oreal cosmetics fortune and holds a 27.5% stake in the company.
Her total wealth is put at about 17bn euros ($21bn; £14bn).
Twenty years ago, she befriended the society photographer Francois-Marie Banier, 62.
Over the years, she gave him gifts worth around 1bn euros. These included cash, life insurance policies and artworks by Picasso and Matisse.
Her daughter, Francoise Bettencourt-Meyers, took the matter to court.
She said Mrs Bettencourt was mentally incompetent and had been exploited by Mr Banier.
Mrs Bettencourt said she was a free woman, in full control of her faculties, and her daughter would just have to accept it.
But the dispute has now widened far beyond its origins.
In 2010 prosecutors opened a separate investigation into Mrs Bettencourt's tax affairs after secret recordings of conversations between the heiress and her wealth manager came to light.
The recordings, made by Mrs Bettencourt's butler, were passed to the police by her daughter.
Transcripts published by the news website Mediapart appear to refer to undeclared bank accounts in Switzerland and the Seychelles.
Mrs Bettencourt admitted tax evasion and promised to put her affairs in order.
But Mrs Bettencourt's political connections came under the spotlight.
Prosecutors began a separate inquiry into Mrs Bettencourt's donations to Nicolas Sarkozy's conservative party, the UMP.
The Bettencourt affair contributed to negative publicity for Mr Sarkozy
The criminal investigation into the former French president for allegedly receiving illegal funding from Mrs Bettencourt has been dropped.
He lost his presidential immunity from prosecution in mid-June 2012, after his election defeat, and in July of that year, police carried out searches at his Paris home, offices and a law firm in which he owns shares.
It had been alleged that tens of thousands of euros were allegedly funnelled to Mr Sarkozy's 2007 presidential campaign by Mrs Bettencourt's office.
Individual campaign contributions in France are limited to 4,600 euros (£3,700) annually.
Mr Sarkozy had consistently rejected all accusations of impropriety.
Eric Woerth quit Mr Sarkozy's government in 2010 over the Bettencourt affair
The former French labour minister was also treasurer for the UMP for eight years.
He ran the party's finances at the time of the presidential election in 2007, when Mr Sarkozy was elected.
Mrs Bettencourt's former accountant Claire Thibout has accused Mr Woerth of taking delivery of undeclared campaign donations from the L'Oreal heiress. She says he received 150,000 euros in cash for the UMP in March 2007.
Mr Woerth has vehemently denied the accusations, saying he never received a single illegal euro. But the Bettencourt affair drove him to resign in 2010.
He said he was the victim of a witch hunt by the left because of his responsibility for pension reform and his plan to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62.
But in February 2012, he was put under criminal investigation for influence peddling - accused of securing France's highest award, the Legion d'honneur, for Mrs Bettencourt's financial manager, Patrice de Maistre.
In his previous role as budget minister, Mr Woerth had responsibility for pursuing tax dodgers.
Questions have now been raised about whether he turned a blind eye to Mrs Bettencourt's tax evasion.
A prosecutor says he informed the budget ministry of his suspicions about Mrs Bettencourt's tax affairs in January 2009. Mr Woerth denies having blocked an investigation.
He is expected to face trial for his alleged role in the affair.
To complicate matters still further, Mr Woerth's wife used to work for Mrs Bettencourt as an investment adviser.
She was employed by Patrice de Maistre, Mrs Bettencourt's wealth manager, but resigned in 2010 after she and her husband were accused of a conflict of interest.
In the secret tapes, Mr de Maistre says clearly that he gave the job to Mrs Woerth after being asked by Mr Woerth to employ her.
So far Patrice de Maistre is the only one of the suspects to have been detained
Patrice de Maistre was Mrs Bettencourt's wealth manager. His company, Clymene, had as its sole function the investment of the estimated 278m euros that Mrs Bettencourt drew annually from her stake in L'Oreal.
He was detained by Bordeaux police for 88 days in early 2012. He was released after posting bail of 4m euros.
He denies accusations by Claire Thibout, who says he asked her for 150,000 euros, which he promised to give "discreetly" to Eric Woerth at a dinner.
In the tapes recorded by Mrs Bettencourt's butler, he is heard to tell the heiress that Eric Woerth is "very nice, and also he's the man who is in charge of your taxes... He's a friend."
Investigators are interested in 4m euros which he allegedly transferred to France from a Bettencourt bank account in Switzerland in 2007-2009.
Mr de Maistre was awarded the Legion d'Honneur. Eric Woerth denies it was in return for employing his wife.
Mr de Maistre is also expected to face trial for his alleged role in the affair.
Claire Thibout says Mr Sarkozy received envelopes of Bettencourt cash before becoming president
Ms Thibout was formerly Mrs Bettencourt's accountant.
She told prosecutors that in March 2007, she had been involved in withdrawing 150,000 euros in cash from Mrs Bettencourt's accounts.
She said she herself took out 50,000 euros - the maximum she was authorised to withdraw - and handed the money to Patrice de Maistre.
Police have checked bank records and have confirmed the withdrawal.
The money was to be given to Mr Woerth in plain envelopes as a donation for the UMP, she said.
Ms Thibout admitted she herself had not witnessed the handover.
Francois-Marie Banier allegedly received expensive gifts from Mrs Bettencourt
Described as an aesthete, Francois-Marie Banier made his name as a photographer. His work has been published in Le Figaro and the New Yorker.
In his youth, Francois-Marie Banier was the friend of 1960s cultural icons like Salvador Dali and Samuel Beckett.
But his friendship with Mrs Bettencourt angered her family. Mrs Bettencourt's daughter, Francoise Bettencourt-Meyers, called him "the predator".
In December 2009, a court ruled that Mr Banier did have a criminal case to answer for "abuse of mental fragility".
Mr Banier went on trial in July 2010, but the case was quickly adjourned. He denied all the charges, saying he did not take advantage of Mrs Bettencourt.
In December 2010, he made an out-of-court settlement with Francoise Bettencourt-Meyers, under which he will not benefit from her mother's fortune.
But he remains under investigation by the authorities, and is expected to face trial for his alleged role in the affair.