The intricate and inherently fascinating details of the high society scandal that rocked France in the wake of revelations that the world’s richest woman transformed a gadabout photographer into a billionaire have been laid bare in a new book.
The intrigue, involving a makeup heiress and her bitter daughter, a scorned butler and several high ranking French officials was so riveting in part because it reached all the way to the office of embattled then-President Nicolas Sarkozy and his cabinet members.
“The Bettencourt Affair,” by Tom Sancton, who covered the trial that forced the affair into the spotlight for Time magazine, is an intensely reported account of power, politics, persuasion and the dark family secrets of the ultra-wealthy.
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The skullduggery centered around Liliane Bettencourt, estimated to be worth $ 35 billion, the principal shareholder in global cosmetics company L’Oreal, a venerated institution in France. A stunning beauty, for most of her life she met the expectations of her uniquely powerful position in French society, leading a rigidly proper life with her husband, Andre, a staid politician.
But when she turned 65, she suddenly fell under the sway of a young, charming photographer, Francoise-Marie Banier.
Their relationship set up a power struggle between Bettencourt and her only daughter as money began to go missing, lawsuits ensued and secret tapes emerged that stunned a captivated country.
Banier may have arrived in Paris as a nobody, but he swiftly found his way into society’s most exclusive circles.
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The gorgeous gay youth was taken up by the likes of Salvador Dali, Yves Saint Laurent, Francois Mitterrand and Vladimir Horowitz. Banier was a novelist who became better known for his photographs.
He was no stranger to celebrities.
One memorable evening at yet another star-studded party, Richard Burton fell to all fours to serve as his piano stool when Banier decided to tickle the ivories.
Johnny Depp and his then-partner, Vanessa Paradis, were frequent guests. The couple considered him family.
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His own lawyer described him in court as a “mad dog with the personality of a child,” but as Diane von Furstenberg once said, “Everybody who met Francoise-Marie was charmed by him.”
By the time Bettencourt became enthralled with Banier, she was a seriously depressed woman. As she reached a more mature age and her beauty began to fade, her life with Andre grew tedious, and she didn’t much care much for her somber daughter.
“Francoise was heavy and slow, always one lap behind me,” she quipped in an interview.
The aging dowager bragged to friends that Banier brought her to life, made her feel vibrant.
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“She was fascinated to the point of stupefaction,” a friend said.
Banier immediately established himself as an arrogant presence in the makeup family’s household, lounging on Bettencourt’s bed while he told her how to dress and what to do.
“He renovated me,” she said.
In return, Bettencourt was absurdly generous. She declared herself his patron and the millions started to flow.
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She decided her new obsession needed more space and bought the five-story building in Paris where he owned three apartments.
She set up a private real estate trust, making Banier the co-owner, and went on a spree snapping up properties. The two cruised galleries together. Banier wanting only masterworks and a lot of them.
She signed her own art collection, valued at more than $ 100 million, over to Banier.
In 1992, in order to protect one of the world’s largest fortunes, Bettencourt’s vast holdings in L’Oreal were gifted to her daughter and grandsons. Francoise was guaranteed to inherit 92 percent of her mother’s estate.
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But Bettencourt retained voting control in her lifetime and viewed the stock earnings, currently averaging nearly $ 2 million a day, as money she was free to spend as she pleased.
Banier insisted it gave her such “an immense pleasure” to press these gifts on him, he didn’t have the heart to refuse them. Meanwhile, Bettencourt’s daughter, Francoise, and her husband, Jean-Pierre Meyer, a L’Oreal executive, seethed.
And after 2006, there was a question of how freely the money was given. Bettencourt took a hard fall in an accident at her villa in Majorca, after which she often seemed profoundly disoriented.
Banier swooped in and installed associates of his to take charge of her treatment. At one point, she was taking 52 pills a day.
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Not coincidentally, she transferred the bulk of what became Banier’s new fortune between 2006 and 2010.
In 2007, Bettencourt’s accountant, Claire Thibout, approached her daughter with a disturbing tale. The heiress had been demanding Thibout retrieve her vast jewelry collection from the bank and bring it to the house.
Bettencourt’s jewelry was stored in a walk-in safe. One observer said it was like “Ali Baba’s cave,” a floor-to-ceiling cache of diamond and pearl bracelets, necklaces, tiaras, rings, brooches and gold ingots worth “tens of millions.”
None of it had been inventoried and it was all uninsured.
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Thibout was convinced Banier was behind the demands. Meyer asked the accountant if she would be willing to testify in court, but Thibout rightly feared she’d lose her highly lucrative job.
So the two struck a deal. Meyer committed to making up whatever shortfall in lifetime income Thibout would suffer if fired.
Andre died soon afterward, and Meyer filed suit to put Bettencourt under protective custody. The court was asked to appoint a guardian to oversee her affairs. Bettencourt would lose control of the all-important voting stock in L’Oreal.
The one thing in life Bettencourt had long feared and couldn’t tolerate was falling under the control of Francoise and her husband, Jean-Pierre, who she’d always believed was money-hungry.
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It was then that Andre’s butler, Pascal Bonnefoy, stepped into the fray. Independent of both factions, but fearing for his job, he hid a tape recorder in the room where his boss held strategy sessions with her financial advisers, chiefly Patrice De Maistre.
The scandalous tapes were later produced in court. De Maistre’s manipulations were appalling, but the real shock was Bettencourt seemed to have no idea of the riches she’d bestowed on Banier.
The wealthy woman had forgotten she’d written a will leaving her personal fortune to Banier. She also seemed totally unaware she’d given him a private island, Ile de Arros, in the Seychelles.
“I wanted to give him an island?” she asked.
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Meanwhile, De Maistre was slyly presenting papers for the obviously confused 90-year-old to sign surrendering legal control to him.
He also thought to ask her to buy him “the boat of my dreams.” De Maistre’s greed was galling.
De Maistre was the dark link to Sarkozy, subsequently targeted in a criminal investigation for directly soliciting Bettencourt for illegal campaign donations.
While the former president escaped charges, he was formally censured by the judge.
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Banier was originally sentenced to three years in jail and ordered to pay back $ 18 million. He had already surrendered claim on much of the disputed fortune Bettencourt had bestowed him.
But the fine was dropped on appeal, leaving Banier a very rich man.
The harsh sentence was softened in light of the fact that Francoise Meyer was under investigation for potentially bribing a witness. The prosecutor learned about the deal she’d made with Claire Thibout to make up lost earnings.
Nevertheless, Francoise and Jean-Michel’s control of Bettencourt is now indisputable.
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In his writings, Sancton wonders if Francoise was trying to protect her mother or seeking revenge on the once-powerful woman who didn’t much care for her.
Whatever the case, Francoise now has the fortune and Bettencourt, 95, can no longer remember Banier’s name.
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