Low-key life for L'Oreal heiress' daughter

Mrs Francoise Bettencourt-Meyers (left) lodged a complaint after her father’s death in 2007 against photographer Francois-Marie Banier (center). She said he extorted huge sums from her mother, Mrs Liliane Bettencourt (right). She blamed a feud with her mother on Mr Banier, who joined the family circle in 1993.

THE author of a scholarly study of biblical texts aimed at furthering understanding between Jews and Catholics and an accomplished classical pianist, Mrs Francoise Bettencourt-Meyers threw aside life in the shadows to provoke modern France's most enduring financial and political scandal.

For seven years, Mrs Bettencourt-Meyers, 61, has pursued 67-year-old society photographer Francois-Marie Banier who, she charges, extorted huge sums from her mother, Mrs Liliane Bettencourt.

The multi-billionaire daughter of Eugene Schueller, the founder of the L'Oreal haircare and cosmetics empire, Mrs Bettencourt was a renowned beauty in her day and the model for one of L'Oreal's early labels.

In the course of a five-week trial in Bordeaux last month, Mrs Bettencourt-Meyers told the court how she tried to stop Mr Banier "manipulating" her mother, now 92, by exploiting a fragile mental state caused by old age.

The mother, who lives in a secluded mansion at the edge of Paris and is estimated by Forbes to be worth US$40 billion (S$54.5 billion), at one point made Mr Banier the sole beneficiary of her will.

Mrs Bettencourt-Meyers alleged that her mother gave him €1 billion (S$1.53 billion); court documents detail sums amounting to just under half of that.

Mrs Bettencourt-Meyers spoke for 2½ hours about her fight to protect her mother and her wealth during the hearing.

Shortly before his death in 2007, she said her father had told her: "'Banier is a crook, one day there will be a trial.' And here we are."

The verdict will be handed down on May 28.

The prosecution requested a three-year jail term for Mr Banier.

A month after her father's death in November 2007, Mrs Bettencourt-Meyers lodged a complaint for "abuse of weakness" against Mr Banier who, she told the court, tried "to smash and rule, it was a programmed destruction".

She blamed an ensuing feud with her mother on the photographer who joined the family circle in 1993.

Mrs Bettencourt-Meyers, the only child of Liliane and Andre Bettencourt, was born in the wealthy Paris suburb of Neuilly- sur-Seine, the town where Mr Nicolas Sarkozy was a mayor from 1983 until his election to the French presidency in 2007.

While her mother had inherited huge riches, her father had a network of contacts across the political spectrum.

A lifelong friend of France's former Socialist president Francois Mitterrand whom he had met as a student, Mr Bettencourt held ministerial posts under three presidents - Rene Coty, Charles De Gaulle and Georges Pompidou.

The young Francoise received a pious Catholic education, attending the Marymount International School in Paris staffed by English-speaking nuns and developing a passion for religion.

She liked to quote an uncle on her father's side who was a priest: "Money is a good servant but a bad master."

Ignoring a series of eligible suitors found by her parents, she said her choice of husband was Mr Jean-Pierre Meyers, the son of a former L'Oreal employee and a grandson of the rabbi of Neuilly who died in Auschwitz concentration camp during World War II.

According to French media, the prospect of a marriage outside her religion troubled her parents.

Once they agreed, they organised a discreet ceremony near Florence in Italy in April 1984 followed by a lavish society reception in Paris.

In 1986, the first son, Jean-Victor, was born, followed by a brother, Nicolas, in 1988.

Again breaking with convention, Mrs Bettencourt-Meyers opted for her sons to be raised in their father's Jewish faith.

The elder Bettencourts warmed to their son-in-law, who joined the board of L'Oreal, and installed the couple in a duplex by their own house in Neuilly.

The two households shared a telephone switchboard and they flew together by private plane to their property in Brittany for weekends.

Mrs Bettencourt-Meyers published The Greek Gods - A Genealogy in 1994, and A Look At The Bible in 2008.

She gave the proceeds to the Doctors Without Borders charity.

She has also written or co-authored works about deafness and contributes to research into hearing problems.

After Mrs Bettencourt-Meyers lodged her first complaint in 2007, there was a string of lawsuits and counter-suits to establish control over Mrs Liliane Bettencourt and her money.

The worst moments saw Mrs Bettencourt accusing her daughter of being grasping.

Mrs Bettencourt was made a ward of court and finally suggested a solution herself - to put the youthful Jean-Victor in her place on the L'Oreal board.

According to French media, the grandson had long acted as a discreet go-between between his mother and grandmother.

When the Bettencourt affair first hit the headlines, it looked destined to create a political uproar.

A Bettencourt accountant said she had been ordered to collect huge sums in cash that went to Mr Eric Woerth, a former budget and labour minister, for the 2007 election campaign of Mr Sarkozy.

Mr Woerth was one of 10 defendants in the trial but the prosecutor recommended an acquittal, saying that much of the evidence rested on coincidences.

The accountant was herself put under investigation last year for false testimony.

Mr Sarkozy was also questioned, but charges were dropped.

The prosecutor sought a second jail term, of 18 months with 18 months suspended, for Mr Patrice de Maistre, who managed Mrs Liliane Bettencourt's fortune.

Now, Mrs Bettencourt-Meyers speaks of a new tranquillity with her mother.

"Of course, our relations were painful during that tense time," she told the Le Monde daily.

"But now they are normal again and I am not there to upset her. In any way.

When I see her, our discussions are relaxed. I don't want to bring up the past."


This article was first published on Mar 1, 2015. Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.