Bettencourt Feud Ends Up in Court

Here begins the tale of a billionaire, a sweet-talker, an estranged daughter, a butler with some tape transcripts, a minister’s wife and a possible whiff of political scandale.

Liliane Bettencourt and François-Henri Banier at an exhibition

For the media anyway, L’affaire Liliane Bettencourt surfaced some 3 years ago as a family dispute, involving the cosmetics billionairess and a society photographer-confidante said to have disarmed and coaxed a billion euros out of her.

It has now become courtroom high drama with embarrassing revelations of alleged cabinet complicity in a tax refund given to France’s richest woman who in turn has been accused of tax evasion.

Thus a bitter spat between the heiress to the L ‘Oreal cosmetics fortune and her estranged daughter, has moved beyond feuding over the contentious confidante, into a fiercely fought high court hearing, involving an alleged conspiracy to hide money from the taxman in Swiss bank accounts. There are political overtones that may also threaten the career of Labour Minister Eric Woerth, a high-profile minister in President Sarkozy’s government and the man in charge of steering through the unpopular pensions’ reform. The Speaker of the French Parliament Bernard Accoyer has agreed to opposition calls for a commission of inquiry into the Woerth affair. (The conspiracy theorists are having a field day suggesting the scandale has emerged most fortuitously as unions gear up for a wave of protests to protect retirement benefits!)

The Court at Nanterre outside Paris opened and later adjourned the hearing involving society photographer François-Marie Banier, 61, who, in a case brought by Françoise Bettencourt-Meyers, 57, is charged with taking advantage of her frail 87-year-old mother. He denies the charge.

Françoise Bettencourt Meyers, filed a complaint against the photographer in December 2007 for “taking advantage of the fragility of my mother”. The gift she gave him of almost one billion euros has made the photographer the beneficiary of one of the hundred largest fortunes in France.

The Court was soon the scene of fierce altercations between feisty counsel over the admissibility of secret tapes — made by a former butler — of Bettencourt’s private discussions with Banier, a financial adviser and lawyer.

Among other points these alleged that she had employed the wife of Eric Woerth to give her advice, when he was budget minister.

Earlier the butler told the weekly Le Point, that he had made the tapes because he had been “sickened” to see how Banier was “abusing Madame”, whose wealth is estimated to be upwards of 15 billion euros.

  • Meanwhile in a related move Development Minister Alain Joyandet and junior minister Christian Blanc resigned under heavy fire for spending public money on cigars and private jets. In March Joyandet was criticised for the 116,500 euros cost of hiring a private jet to take him to Martinique for an international aid conference. Blanc got covered in blowback after charging 12,000 euros to his departmental budget for his favourite Cuban cigars.

Story: Ken Pottinger

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