20 February 2019
Liliane Bettencourt, France's richest woman, is at the center of a legal drama in which at least 10 people are alleged to have gained access to her vast wealth by exploiting her fragile mental state. Photo: Internet
Liliane Bettencourt, France's richest woman, is at the center of a legal drama in which at least 10 people are alleged to have gained access to her vast wealth by exploiting her fragile mental state. Photo: Internet

Bettencourt case set to grip France

Ten people are on trial in a French court to answer allegations they capitalised on the mental frailty of France’s richest woman, making off with hundreds of millions of euros in cash, goods and property, including an island in the Seychelles.

The trial, the latest instalment of a saga that has gripped France for years, centres on suspicions that tens of thousands of euros — stuffed into envelopes — ended up in the pockets of the country’s center-right UMP party as it looked to fund the 2007 presidential campaign of Nicolas Sarkozy, according to the Financial Times.

In October 2013, a criminal investigation involving Sarkozy himself for allegedly soliciting illicit campaign financing was dropped for lack of evidence, although not before investigating judges held France’s former president for 12 hours of questioning.

The central figure in this week’s trial is Françoise Bettencourt-Meyers, the estranged and only daughter of Liliane Bettencourt, the 92-year-old L’Oréal shareholder and the world’s 12th richest individual, according to Forbes, with a fortune estimated at US$38.8 bilion.

Bettencourt-Meyers alleges that at least 10 people cozied up to her mother specifically to gain access to some of her immense wealth and income, thought to be about 1 milion euros a day, at a time when her mental faculties had waned.

One of the people to appear in court starting this week and over the next month is Eric Woerth, France’s former minister of labor and a former UMP party treasurer for eight years.

Among other things, Woerth oversaw the UMP’s finances during Sarkozy’s election campaign. In 2010, Claire Thibout, Bettencourt’s former accountant, accused Woerth of receiving undeclared donations from the L’Oréal heiress to the tune of 150,000 euros.

Political donations in France are limited to 4,600 euros for individuals and cash contributions cannot exceed 150 euros.

Woerth has vehemently denied the accusations, insisting: “I did not receive a single euro illegally.”

A second person called to appear this week is François-Marie Banier, the French socialite and celebrity photographer who became a close friend of Bettencourt and who, in return for his charm and companionship, received presents estimated by prosecutors to have run into hundreds of millions of euros.

The list is long but includes cash, lucrative life insurance policies and art works by Picasso, Matisse and surrealist photographer Man Ray.

Bettencourt-Meyers first lodged a legal complaint against Banier in December 2007, accusing him of abusing her mother’s diminished mental health.

A court in Nanterre later began to examine the case but the trial was postponed pending the results of a medical examination of Bettencourt’s mental state. In 2010, the case was adjourned again.

The saga, which will unfold over the next month, has hung over the family for years and has overshadowed the final years of Bettencourt, who has not appeared in public since 2012.

The only daughter of Eugène Schueller, founder of L’Oréal in 1907, appeared destined to live out her remaining years away from the headlines, between the family mansion in the Parisian suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine and other properties in Brittany and the Seychelles.

But the very private life of the Bettencourts blew wide open in 2010 after the French publications Le Point and Mediapart revealed tape recordings made by Bettencourt’s butler.

The conversations, allegedly between Bettencourt and her financial advisers, suggested that the L’Oréal heiress had avoided taxes by moving large sums of cash to undeclared Swiss bank accounts.

Bettencourt has acknowledged the existence of undeclared Swiss bank accounts and says she will repatriate the 78 million euros held in them and settle up with the French tax authorities.

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