Inside the L'Oreal Family Feud
A French court just ruled that aging heiress Liliane Bettencourt can keep her billions—but is her daughter right that she's too sick to control it?
Europe’s wealthiest woman may be enduring a traumatizing battle between her daughter and a longtime friend that threatens to sabotage her golden years, but she got an early Christmas present. A French court announced December 9 that Liliane Bettencourt, the eccentric 87-year-old L’Oréal heiress, would retain full control of her fortune—at least for the time being. This is no small present. Forbes last valued her wealth at $13.4 billion.
“These donations come from a woman who is completely healthy,” says Banier. “I am not the only one, far from it, to have benefited.”
Bettencourt’s daughter—and sole direct heir—Françoise Bettencourt-Meyers insists that her mother suffers from a “neurological affliction” that has made her vulnerable to a billion-dollar manipulator. She asked a court to appoint an independent steward over her mother’s financial empire to protect the old lady, who has long declined an independent evaluation, but the court refused to take up the issue, citing a lack of evidence. But days later, on December 11, another court finally ordered one, by three medical experts, with a report due by March. Score that as a significant early victory for the daughter.
This week’s decisions were just the latest turns in this truly twisted legal saga. Now the case will return to its primary focus: Is celebrity photographer and artist François-Marie Banier a criminal who deserves as much as three years in prison (and/or a half-million dollar in fines) for preying on Bettencourt’s supposedly weakened physical and mental state to obtain nearly $1.5 billion in gifts? (Bettencourt has insisted that she is fine and that she can give money to whomever she wishes.) The court also announced that Banier wouldn’t be judged until April 15-16.
The legal and media battle pits a possibly debilitated mother—who has sided with Banier—against her media-shy and introverted daughter in a case that carries echoes of the Brooke Astor case, albeit on a much grander scale. The Bettencourt battle is roiling the European worlds of art, philanthropy, and beauty. On a grittier level, it is a triangular tale of deception, manipulation, and greed—and the story of a withering love of a mother and a daughter.
The painful destruction of that mother-daughter relationship was on full display last week when Françoise Bettencourt-Meyers sent a heart-wrenching handwritten letter to her mother’s home in the posh Parisian suburb of Neuilly to let her know that she had sought an independent steward, for her aging mother’s own good. “My mommy dearest, as sad and painful as it is for you and for me, I have to write these words,” Françoise began. Bettencourt-Meyers called her mom an “admirable woman” and highlighted the matriarch’s role in the development of “this beautiful company” that was founded by Bettencourt’s own father.” Still, the letter goes on, “you are, for me, and above all, my mom.”
The touching “private” letter goes on to argue that Bettencourt-Meyers is taking action because Banier (whose name goes unmentioned) continues to keep Bettencourt from family, friends, and trustworthy employees. “All of that and your health, of course, force me to react, to not accept [the situation] with my eyes closed,” she writes. Bettencourt-Meyers insists that she is not taking this action out of “personal interest,” but rather as her “duty as a daughter” whose only goal is for her mother to be surrounded by people “about whom there is neither doubt, nor suspicion.”
Despite signing the letter as the “daughter who loves you beyond what we are now going through,” Bettencourt has conveyed a few doubts about that love. Her lawyer described the “very affectionate handwritten letter” as “a low blow” that highlights the daughter’s “indecent impatience to take control” of L’Oréal shares that she will inherit upon the death of her aging mother soon enough. The attorney suggested Bettencourt might try to disinherit her daughter for “ingratitude.” (Given France’s strong inheritance laws, this is extremely unlikely.)
Why such anger? Because a copy of the letter found its way into the French daily Le Figaro the day after it reached Bettencourt’s home. Rather than remain “in the intimacy of the family,” the billionaire’s lawyer said that it ended up as a tool in a “vast media plan.”
And then there is the flamboyant Banier. The self-proclaimed author-artist-actor-screenwriter-photographer, who has snapped portraits of everyone from Johnny Depp to Princess Caroline of Monaco, and frequented Dali and the Picassos, spoke out for the first time since the case against him opened this summer. In an interview with the French daily Le Monde on December 9, the 62-year-old Banier said that people are trying to make Bettencourt seem “senile.” He said that Bettencourt has long pushed gifts upon him to support his art, and he insists that he initially refused them. “These donations come from a woman who is completely healthy.” Besides, he notes, “I am not the only one, far from it, to have benefited.”
That is true. Since the late 1980s, Bettencourt has given an estimated $180 million to the Bettencourt-Schueller Foundation. On a more personal level, the court investigation suggests that Bettencourt may have also given away billions of dollars. In addition to the more than a billion dollars worth of checks, life insurance policies, art, and other gifts that she gave or promised Banier between 1997 and 2007, French financial brigade investigators found that Bettencourt gave more than $1.6 billion worth of art (and three negatives of photographs by Eugène Cuvelier worth $756,000) to another photographer, Martin d’Orgeval, according to the Journal du Dimanche. Of course, even if it is true that Bettencourt gave d’Orgeval such an enormous sum as well, it may not offer Banier much of a defense. Why? Because in his lengthy and rambling Le Monde interview, Banier notes that he “shares his life” with the 36-year-old d’Orgeval, who he has known for 17 years. In other words, Liliane Bettencourt may have given more than $3 billion to one couple.
Bettencourt has apparently given lesser sums to others, even buying a home at a cost of $750,000 for the daughter of a famous doctor she knows, and she has rewarded Lindsay Owen-Jones, the former head of L'Oréal, with nearly $240 million, if Banier’s own testimony to investigators can be believed. (Owen-Jones isn’t confirming the amount but he has said that the Bettencourts are very generous.) The difference, of course, is that Owen-Jones helped to earn a great deal of money for the Bettencourt family.
Still, Banier insists that he will be cleared as Bettencourt’s patterns of generosity become clear and other people speak out. As the case proceeds this winter and spring, a French court will try to figure out what the mercurial artist did—or didn’t—do, especially at times when Bettencourt may have been suffering from medical issues. But Banier suggested to Le Monde that the $1.5 billion isn’t as important as the 87-year-old woman’s friendship. “All that she has given me is nothing compared to what she has taught me,” he said.
Bettencourt-Meyers didn’t mention flattery, but she did warn her mother against manipulations and lies in her touching, torturous letter. “Don’t listen to those who would make you believe that I am animated by bad intentions. You are my mom. I am your only child, and you know deep down that [what they say] isn’t true.”
But does she? Does anybody?
Eric Pape has reported on Europe and the Mediterranean region for Newsweek since 2003. He is co-author of the graphic novel Shake Girl. He has written for the Los Angeles Times magazine, Spin, Reader's Digest, Vibe, Courrier International, Salon, and Los Angeles from five continents. He is based in Paris. Follow him at twitter.com/ericpape