Fight for the L'Oreal Billions
A French court is weighing charges that renowned photographer François-Marie Banier swindled the heiress to the L’Oreal beauty empire. Eric Pape on the trial rocking Europe.
Is Liliane Bettencourt—heir to the L’Oreal beauty empire and the world’s second wealthiest woman—simply a generous eccentric, or has she lost her marbles?
Is Françoise Bettencourt-Meyers trying to convince a French court to take away her mother’s right to spend a relatively small portion of the massive family fortune as she sees fit out of greed and spite, or because she is trying to protect an increasingly frail 86-year-old woman from a conniving manipulator?
Liliane declared the looming trial “idiotic,” and said, "My daughter, for me, has become something inert.”
And is celebrated photographer François-Marie Banier—whom Liliane Bettencourt has given or promised an estimated $1.4 billion in money and artwork—the matriarch’s dear friend, or a criminal charmer who is turning Liliane against her only direct heir?
This billion-dollar Gordian knot of personal, familial, and legal questions is, as of September 3, in the hands of a French court in the Parisian suburb of Nanterre. With Bettencourt-Meyers set to inherit nearly all of a fortune that Forbes magazine pegged at $13.4 billion in March (down $9.5 billion from a year earlier, but likely up substantially with the stock market since then), you might imagine she was acting out of self-interest. But, in refusing this week to dismiss the case, the court accepted at least a portion of the argument of Bettencourt-Meyers’ lawyer that it was a daughter’s right to intervene given her mother’s “state of dependency” on Banier. This was a small but significant first victory for Bettencourt-Meyers.
In a July interview with Le Point magazine, Bettencourt-Meyers charged that Banier’s goal is to “break my mother away from our family to profit from her.” She’s determined to prevent that, even if it solidifies the current animosity between mother and daughter into a permanent rupture. Liliane, in a rare interview last year, declared the looming trial “idiotic,” and said of her daughter, “I don’t see her anymore and I don’t want to... It is sad, but we can’t do anything about it. My daughter, for me, has become something inert.” Snap!
The court set December 11 as the trial’s next date, when it can consider whether Bettencourt is mentally diminished, and, if so, whether to appoint a financial supervisor. Among other things, that could provoke a flurry of lawsuits by L’Oreal shareholders, because she is still a dominant presence on the company’s board. Liliane insists she is fine, and adamantly refuses to let a neutral court expert test her mental capacities. A generous philanthropist – who over the years has funded a wide array of research, artistic prizes, and foundations—Bettencourt insists that she is free to give away the small percentage of the billions that she controls unfettered to whomever she wishes.
And now, after months of relative silence in the face of scurrilous allegations, François-Marie Banier has gone on the offensive to protect his reputation. The accomplished 62-year-old photographer, playwright, novelist, and actor is also a social butterfly and networker who has created notable portraits of everyone from Isabelle Adjani, Sophie Marceau, and Johnny Depp to Princess Caroline of Monaco, Joyce Carol Oates, and Samuel Beckett. Banier’s work has often been featured in Vanity Fair and The New Yorker, as well as in expositions around the world. As a young man, he socialized with the likes of Yves Saint Laurent, Pierre Cardin, Salvador Dalí, and the Picassos.
He has also shown an odd penchant for befriending wealthy grande dames, some of whom gave him nothing, according to relatives, while others may have given or sold him valuable real estate (perhaps at a discount) near his own elegant Parisian residence—all of which is being looked into by the court. If convicted of manipulating and bilking Bettencourt, he could face up to three years in prison.
Last month, Banier filed two lawsuits of his own. One related to an article published by the French investigative website bakchich.info that he says defamed him and violated his privacy and the presumption of innocence. The article cited remarks by Frédéric Castaing, the grandson of the late and very wealthy decorator Madeleine, suggesting that Banier had used his charms to finagle choice real estate out of grand-mère toward the end of her 98-year life, paying just a pittance for elegant space near the Jardin de Luxembourg. (Banier has insisted that the real estate deal was entirely kosher.)
Banier has also sued the conservative magazine, Le Point, over allegations that he was the young lover of both Salvador Dalí and the legendary French writer Louis Aragon. Banier, who has lived with male companions, has procured denials from Amanda Lear, Dalí’s last wife, as well as the executor of Aragon's will. Lear recently told a French newspaper that Banier “was a great friend of my husband who would often invite him to his Five O’Clock Tea at the Hotel Meurice, but it is grotesque to imagine that there could have been a relation of a sexual nature between them.” Banier’s lawyers say that the defamation cases aim to "rectify a tableau of lies that, over time, ended up portraying his image in an unflattering way," and that their aim is to stop “the dump truck of calumnies that has been poured on him in recent months.”
Meanwhile, the investigation continues to widen. The national police’s Financial Brigade, in addition to following up on the accusations made by Frédéric Castaing, is also looking at Banier’s past friendships with figures such as aristocrat Marie-Laure de Noailles and literary figure Nathalie Sarraute. Never mind that a relative of Sarraute has reportedly said the old lady was so cheap she wouldn’t have given him so much as a cup of coffee.
Amid the many questions being examined, one thing seems certain: Banier enjoys spending money. Profiled by Vanity Fair in 2006, he said, "Money in the bank is like a shameful disease in my family. Every time I get an advance from a book or sell a photograph, I buy a work of art, or another apartment in my building, or some land around my country house near Nîmes."
But if the court doesn’t force a change in Bettencourt’s plans—and in her life insurance policies—when the trial reconvenes in December, Banier might just finish his days shopping like a grande dame.
Eric Pape has reported on Europe and the Mediterranean region for Newsweek Magazine since 2003. He is co-author of the graphic novel, Shake Girl, which was inspired by one of his articles. He has written for the Los Angeles Times magazine, Spin, Vibe, Le Courrier International, Salon, Los Angeles and others. He is based in Paris.