Trial of 10 on charges of defrauding L’Oréal heiress closes

Verdict to be delivered by June

The five-week trial of 10 people accused of swindling France’s richest woman out of hundreds of millions of euro, ended yesterday in Bordeaux.

Liliane Bettencourt (92) is the heiress to the L'Oréal cosmetics fortune. Forbes magazine lists her as the world's third richest woman, with a fortune estimated at $39 billion (€34 billion). She is deaf and suffers from Alzheimer's. The trial dealt only with the period between 2006 and 2010, before Bettencourt was placed under the guardianship of a grandson in 2011.

The verdict will be handed down by June. For François-Marie Banier (67), a flamboyant socialite and photographer with venomous charm, the prosecutor recommended three years in prison and a €375,000 fine.

In their final pleas yesterday, Banier’s lawyers argued that the “good fairy Liliane” was perfectly aware of what she was doing when she gave some €494 million in cash, life insurance policies, property and artworks – including paintings by Picasso and Matisse – to Banier.

Banier testified that he is “hopeless at numbers”. His lawyers claim that only€104 million of the monies he received from Bettencourt remain. If convicted, he will doubtless be forced to return it.

Banier played the role of court jester to Bettencourt, lying with his shoes on her bed, calling her “ma grosse” (my fat lady). He made her laugh, which his supporters argue is priceless.

In a letter written in 2003, and which was to have been opened only after her death, Bettencourt asked her notary to tell her daughter Françoise “that I have written once or twice a day for 15 years to François-Marie Banier. I needed a profound exchange. I talked with François-Marie as I talked with my father. I was not able to talk to my daughter since her marriage.”

Françoise , Bettencourt’s only child, was so distraught to see her inheritance diverted by Banier, whom she calls “the predator”, that she filed a lawsuit against him.

Relations between mother and daughter were always poor, but worsened when Françoise converted to orthodox Judaism to marry Jean-Pierre Meyers, whose grandfather, a rabbi, was murdered at Auschwitz.

Bettencourt’s father, Eugène Schueller, the founder of L’Oréal, had been accused of collaboration with Nazis.

Until Bettencourt’s husband, André, died in 2007, Banier and his partner of 23 years, Martin d’Orgeval (41), often accompanied the billionaire couple to their island of Arros, in the Seychelles. The Bettencourt grandchildren were never invited.

Bettencourt gave the island to Banier, via a foundation in Liechtenstein. She paid him €100,000 in annual rent for it, and channelled €20 million in maintenance fees through Switzerland and Singapore.

Sole heir

In 2007, Bettencourt made Banier her executor and sole heir. To d’Orgeval, she gave paintings by Max Ernst and Jean Arp, valued at €1.1 million, and some €3 million.

Banier claimed he did not want to become Bettencourt’s heir, but that she grew angry if one resisted her wishes.

Bettencourt’s friends and servants testified that her mental capacities were diminished by 2006. Banier disputes this. “Even if you convict me and send me to [the penal colony in] Cayenne, I will repeat that it is shameful to portray Liliane Bettencourt as some kind of puppet.”

The trial became a bizarre version of Upstairs Downstairs, as Bettencourt's former servants denounced Banier's hold over her.

Dominique Gaspard, who worked for Jackie Kennedy Onassis before she became Bettencourt's chambermaid, testified that Banier told Bettencourt what to wear, who to hire and fire in her mansion, and which doctors to trust.

Banier kept an eye on Bettencourt’s datebook, and convinced her to cancel an appointment for a brain scan. “He told her they were trying to make her pass for a mad woman,” Gaspard said. When he was to lunch with Bettencourt, Banier phoned Gaspard to tell her to “make sure she brings her cheque book”.

Adoption

Just after the death of Bettencourt’s husband, Gaspard overheard Banier suggest to Bettencourt that she should adopt him.

Bettencourt's butler, Pascal Bonnefoy, was so appalled by what was happening that he hid microphones and recorders in Bettencourt's mansion.

On one tape, Patrice de Maistre, the manager of Bettencourt’s fortune, who was paid €22.4 million by her, orders her to sign a document raising his annual salary from €1.2 million to €2 million.

The prosecutor asked for charges against Eric Woerth to be dropped. Woerth resigned as then-president Nicolas Sarkozy's budget minister when Bettencourt's accountant said de Maistre had given Woerth cash-filled envelopes to finance Sarkozy's campaign.

Lara Marlowe

Lara Marlowe

Lara Marlowe is Paris Correspondent of The Irish Times

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