The heiress, the butler, the minister: Who's who in the Bettencourt trial

It’s one of France’s most incendiary scandals, involving a cast of characters from across France’s elite business and political circles. FRANCE 24 examines the principal characters in the trial surrounding L’Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt.

It started out with a whiff of a scandal, but as the summer temperatures soared, the scent turned into a stink, one that has spread through the echelons of Parisian business, social and political circles. And when the stink of a scandal started to engulf a French cabinet minister, one charged with implementing some of France’s thorniest fiscal reforms, and travelled all the way up to French President Nicolas Sarkozy, "L’affaire Bettencourt" seemed to become too redolent even for Parisian salons.

"L’affaire Bettencourt", as the scandal has been dubbed by the French press, has all the elements of a high-society family drama. These include a mega-rich ageing cosmetics heiress, apparently with questionable mental prowess; her bitter daughter; a playboy photographer-cum-celebrity courter; and a butler who not only knows all, but recorded all.

Here is FRANCE 24’s cast of characters – not necessarily in order of appearance.

Liliane Bettencourt:

Heiress to the L'Oreal cosmetics empire. The daughter of L’Oreal founder Eugène Schueller, Bettencourt is often called "Europe’s richest woman". Her fortune is estimated at 22 billion euros. At the heart of the Bettencourt affair lies the 87-year-old’s suspiciously close ties to 63-year-old photographer, Francois-Marie Banier and her strained relationship with her daughter, Françoise Bettencourt Meyers. Her daughter claims that her mother is in her dotage, a state that, she says, has been exploited by photographer Banier to extract billions of euros worth of gifts   including life insurance policies and art works. Bettencourt, however, maintains she is mentally sound and has defended her platonic friendship with Banier. She has refused to consult with mental health experts as requested by her daughter.

François-Marie Banier:

The 63-year-old photographer, writer and artist has been accused of abusing his wealthy patron’s weakness. Over the past few years, Banier has accumulated a windfall from various "gifts" from the billionaire heiress. Between 2002   when Bettencourt’s mental health began to deteriorate   and 2007, the photographer has received approximately 1 billion euros in gifts, according to French financial investigators. In addition to large checks, he also obtained paintings by masters such as Picasso, Matisse and Fernand Leger. In his only interview, to the French daily Le Monde in December 2009, Banier denounced these accusations as "slanderous". Banier faces up to three years in prison and a €375,000 fine on charges of exploitation.

Françoise Bettencourt Meyers:

The daughter of Liliane Bettencourt filed a complaint against the photographer, François-Marie Banier, on December 19, 2007. At that time, she alleged that household help had overheard conversations between her mother and photographer Barnier about her taking steps to adopt him. The accusations were never proved, and both Bettencourt and Banier deny them. More broadly, she accuses Banier of extracting gifts from her mother at moments when she is physically at her weakest. In an interview with the French press, Bettencourt has suggested that her daughter is "introverted", "cold" and is jealous of someone as sociable as Banier.

Patrice de Maistre:

Officially Bettencourt’s financial manager, he owns the company Clymene, whose sole function is investing the estimated €278 million that Bettencourt draws annually from her 27.5% stake in L'Oreal. His name appears several times in the political-tax case being heard in the French city of Nantes. De Maistre was at the center of a media maelstrom in mid-June when a French Web site, Mediapart, published wiretaps of phone conversations between De Maistre and his heiress-client that appear to point to tax-evasion schemes. Among a host of recommendations recorded are the proposed transfer of funds to accounts in Switzerland and Singapore and suggestions that the heiress omit her ownership of Arros, an outer island of the Seychelles which once belonged to the Shah of Iran, from her report to the French inland revenue service. More critically though, De Maistre and Bettencourt's conversations presented to court are strewn with the name of Eric Woerth. When a former accountant for the Bettencourt family charged that the couple gave cash handouts to various politicians, De Maistre was cited as the main orchestrator of these illegal political donations.

Eric Woerth:

The 54-year-old French politician is the current French labour minister. Before his post in the labour ministry, Woerth served as budget minister in 2007. He is also the treasurer and chief fund-raiser for President Nicolas Sarkozy’s ruling UMP party. Woerth’s wife, Florence, worked for De Maistre’s firm Clymene. Following the Bettencourt scandal, Mrs. Woerth resigned from the company on June 22. The French politician’s involvement in "L’affaire Bettencourt" surfaced when wiretaps of phone conversations between Bettencourt and her financial advisor featured several references to Mr. and Mrs. Woerth. One wiretap, for instance, has de Maistre describing the French minister to an aurally challenged Bettencourt as "very nice, and also he's the man who is in charge of your taxes. He is budget minister. He is very nice, he's a friend."

Given the tax-evasion charges facing Bettencourt, links with a "very nice" former budget minister could be a political hot potato for Woerth. The plot thickened when French news site Mediapart published an interview with a former L’Oreal accountant who claimed that the Bettencourts illegally gave Woerth 150,000 euros in cash for French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s 2007 campaign. In its exclusive interview, Mediapart identified the former accountant, Claire Thibout, only as “Claire T”.

Claire Thibout

Originally identified only as Claire T. by the news website Mediapart that published an exclusive interview with her, this former personal accountant of Liliane Bettencourt contends that her employer illegally gave Labour Minister Eric Woerth 150,000 euros in cash for President Nicolas Sarkozy’s 2007 campaign. Thibout told police the transactions were recorded in three accounting ledgers that she handed back to her employers when she left her job. During her 12 years as Liliane’s accountant and close confidante, Thibout said she saw many politicians pass by the Bettencourt residence in the wealthy suburb of Neuilly to pick up cash envelopes, including then-city mayor Nicolas Sarkozy. According to Thibout’s lawyer, she left her job on good terms and continues to hold great esteem for Liliane Bettencourt.

Mediapart quoted her as saying Nicolas Sarkozy had personally collected envelopes stuffed with banknotes when he was mayor of the wealthy suburb of Neuilly. But in a police testimony on July 8, Thibout backtracked on her alleged statements, denying Sarkozy visited the Bettencourt residence to collect illegal donations. While maintaining that her employer made illegal donations to Sarkozy’s 2007 election campaign, Thibout said parts of her Mediapart interview regarding Sarkozy and former conservative Prime Minister Edouard Balladur had been “romanticised” by the news Web site.

The butler, Pascal B:

This butler did it: In this case, secretly recording his employer’s phone conversations. The butler is also the critical link that gives an essentially high-society family drama a political overtone. Bettencourt’s butler and steward recorded six telephone conversations between his employer, Bettencourt, and her financial advisor, De Maistre. The explosive transcripts were published on a French website, Mediapart. Pascal B, whose family name has not been revealed, has said he gave the tapes to Bettencourt’s estranged daughter since he was disgusted by the treatment meted out to several of his colleagues who were dismissed by Bettencourt.

Nicolas Sarkozy:

The long arm of the Bettencourt scandal snaked up to France’s highest office following Mediapart’s revelatory interview with Claire Thibout. According to Thibout, she personally withdrew 50,000 euros at the end of March 2007 at the request of Bettencourt’s wealth manager, Patrice de Maistre. She further maintains that she heard de Maistre say the cash was destined for the Sarkozy campaign coffers, and that he had gone to a Swiss bank to withdraw a further 100,000 euros before handing all the money to Woerth (then Sarkozy’s campaign treasurer). Sarkozy has vehemently denied the accusations, calling them a politically motivated smear campaign. De Maistre has also "formally denied" Thibout's allegations after questioning by police, according to his lawyer. French prosecutors have opened a preliminary investigation into the accountant’s claims.

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