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L'Oreal family feud over one billion euro gifts heads to court

Text by Mehdi Chebil

Latest update : 2010-07-29

In a story that has gripped Paris, the daughter of France's wealthiest woman has filed a suit in court arguing that her 87 year-old mother has been tricked into lavishing gifts totalling over one billion euros on a society photographer.

A bitter family feud over the L’Oreal dynasty’s vast fortune has landed in court as the daughter of cosmetics tycoon Liliane Bettencourt questions whether her mother has been scammed into lavishing expensive gifts on flamboyant photographer François-Marie Banier.

The case will focus on the mental health of 87 year-old L’Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt, France’s wealthiest woman. Her daughter has been pressing for an official inquiry for the past 18 months, claiming that her mother lost her mind and fell under the spell of 62 year-old Banier, whom she describes as an unscrupulous “predator”. Under French law, taking advantage of a person's deficient mental health constitutes a crime called "abuse of weakness".

Between 2002 and 2007, Banier is alleged to have received almost 1 billion euros in gift from the heiress, including properties, life insurance policies, and masterpieces by Renoir and Matisse.

The enormous amount of money involved triggered suspicions from Liliane Bettencourt’s only daughter, who stands to inherit her mother’s vast fortune. However, it must be pointed out that despite the eye-watering sums involved in this alleged scam, it is but a fraction of the old dame’s assets.

Liliane Bettencourt is the main shareholder of L’Oreal, the world’s biggest cosmetics company, which was founded by her father in 1907. Forbes magazine estimated her wealth in 2009 at US$13.4 billion.

Mental frailty

Liliane Bettencourt has come out strongly against her daughter, dismissing claims that she was “not lucid” and scammed by a fraudster. Her lawyer, George Kiejman, says the L’Oreal heiress was in full possession of her mental faculties.

“I’m here to say on behalf of Mrs Bettencourt: ‘That’s enough! I’m not a vegetable, you will not bend me to your will’” declared Kiejman.

It will now be up to the court to assess Liliane Bettencourt’s mental health.

Preying on rich old ladies: Is he worth it?

The court has ordered a medical review to take place by March 10, 2010 after a judge ruled her daughter’s complaint to be legitimate. However, the heiress had so far refused to be submitted to any mental test.

Although Banier’s mental health won’t be assessed by the court, his psychological profile will certainly come under scrutiny.

The 62 year-old writer and celebrity photographer comes across as a colourful character, a former Parisian socialite who befriended cultural icons in the 60’s such as famed French writer Louis Aragon or Spanish painter Salvador Dali.

But the court action has brought his penchant for elderly women under the spotlight. Several French media have run articles portraying Banier as a “gigolo” preying on rich old ladies.

Shared affection

In an interview with French newspaper Le Monde on Dec 9, Banier denied all the allegations, saying his relation with Liliane Bettencourt was built on “40 years of shared affection”. Banier claims he initially met Liliane Bettencourt in 1969.

Asked in that interview if, as a 19 year-old boy, he didn’t have better things to do than befriending 64 year-old countess Marie-Laure de Noailles, Banier reacted angrily, but with plenty of flattery for Liliane Bettencourt.

“Do you realise the stupidity of that question? It’s like asking why I would go to see Leonardo de Vinci”, says Banier.

Banier will stand trial in mid-April 2010. If found guilty , he could face as much as three years in jail, as well as a fine up to 375,000 euros.


Date created : 2009-12-13