French court hears tale of L'Oreal heiress' riches

AP News
Posted: Dec 11, 2009 11:33 AM

A French family drama worthy of a soap opera landed in court Friday, as the daughter of France's richest woman questioned whether her mother has lost her mind and frittered away a fortune on a man known for befriending high-society celebrities.

Francoise Bettencourt Meyers' two-year legal campaign against the man she accuses of taking advantage of Liliane Bettencourt, her 87-year-old mother, has already included a failed attempt to have her mother put under court-ordered supervision. A judge heard her complaint Friday.

Bettencourt, heiress to the French cosmetics giant, L'Oreal, ranks just ahead of Saudi Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal on this year's Forbes' list of the world's richest people, with a fortune estimated at $13.4 billion.

Her only child, the 56-year-old Bettencourt Meyers, claims that author and photographer Francois-Marie Banier, 62, has taken advantage of her mother's alleged "mental frailty" to wring gifts including cash and art worth around euro1 billion ($1.5 billion).

Last September, a French prosecutor dropped his own investigation into the affair after finding that Bettencourt was in full possession of her mental and physical capacities and that she hadn't been taken advantage of by Banier.

The daughter, as member of L'Oreal's board of directors, is in line to inherit all of her mother's shares in L'Oreal, one day giving her ownership of more than one quarter of the cosmetics giant.

For his part, Banier is a colorful character who lives in a large apartment near the Luxembourg Gardens, zooms around Paris on an old, blue motor scooter and has befriended celebrities ranging from Salvador Dali to Johnny Depp.

In an interview Thursday with the French newspaper Le Monde, Banier denied that he had ever taken advantage of Bettencourt.

The gifts, which included cash, life insurance policies, and paintings by Picasso and Matisse, "are gifts from a totally lucid woman, which I refused for a long time to accept," Banier said.

Banier said he met Bettencourt in 1969 when he was 22, when he began discussing poetry with her husband in the home of Pierre Lazareff, a French journalist. He says he exchanged "thousands" of letters with the older woman over the years, and that her gifts were made over a roughly ten-year period beginning in 1995.

He said their relationship can't be reduced to a question of money.

"What shocks people is that a woman of her standing would break conventions like this," Banier said. "What she gave me is nothing alongside what she taught me."

A profile of Banier in the magazine L'Express detailed a long and mind-bending list of the rich and powerful that Banier has befriended, starting with wealthy heiress Marie-Laure de Noailles when he was 19 and she was 64.

Asked in that interview if "he didn't have better things to do" when he was that age, Banier grew angry.

"Do you realize the stupidity of that question? It's like asking why I would go to see Leonardo da Vinci."

Bettencourt has made only one public statement on the affair, telling Le Journal du Dimanche newspaper last year that the whole thing was "very unpleasant and upsetting." She said her gifts to Banier "were not very much" in proportion to her wealth.

"My daughter is going to have to accept that I'm a free woman," Bettencourt said.