L'Oreal heiress trial to resume after opening with news of a defendant's attempted suicide

Ms Francoise Bettencourt Meyers, daughter of France's richest woman, L'Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt, and her son, Jean-Victor (with black scarf), leaving the court with the family lawyers on Jan 26, 2015. -- PHOTO: AFP
Ms Francoise Bettencourt Meyers, daughter of France's richest woman, L'Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt, and her son, Jean-Victor (with black scarf), leaving the court with the family lawyers on Jan 26, 2015. -- PHOTO: AFP

BORDEAUX (AFP) - The trial of 10 people accused of exploiting France's richest woman Liliane Bettencourt is set to resume on Tuesday, after it opened on Monday with the revelation that one of the accused had tried to kill himself on the eve of his appearance.

Alain Thurin, 64, a former nurse for the frail L'Oreal heiress, tried to hang himself in the woods near his house, said presiding judge Denis Roucou. A police source said Thurin was in a critical condition.

He is one of 10 members of Ms Bettencourt's entourage accused of taking advantage of the 92-year-old billionaire's growing mental fragility in an explosive legal and political drama that even dragged in former president Nicolas Sarkozy.

The trial was suspended on Monday to allow the court to study a procedural issue raised by the defence, and will resume on Tuesday.

A bitter mother-daughter feud, a butler's betrayal, advancing dementia, unscrupulous friends and politicians: these are only some threads of the complex web surrounding the world's 12th-biggest fortune that the court will have to untangle.

The intricate tale began with one of the accused, Francois-Marie Banier, a celebrity photographer who became a close confidant of Ms Bettencourt.

The heiress, worth an estimated US$39 billion (S$52.3 billion), according to Forbes magazine, showered Banier with gifts, such as paintings by Picasso and Matisse, life insurance funds and millions of euros in cash.

Ms Bettencourt also made him her sole heir, a move she would later revoke.

Her daughter, Ms Francoise Bettencourt-Meyers, filed charges against Banier in 2007 for exploiting her mother's growing mental fragility - which the matriarch staunchly denied - a month after the death of her father, Andre.

Enter the butler.

Concerned about his employer, Ms Bettencourt's butler, Mr Pascal Bonnefoy in 2009 placed a recorder in her office, whose explosive contents would reveal her weakened mental state and how she was being manipulated by those around her.

A key protagonist among the accused, Patrice de Maistre, who managed Ms Bettencourt's fortune, is heard in the tapes encouraging her to commit tax evasion - including hiding the purchase of a Seychelles island, according to media accounts of the recordings.

De Maistre is also accused of getting Ms Bettencour to hand over envelopes of cash to members of the UMP party, such as his friend, Eric Woerth, a former minister and campaign treasurer for Mr Sarkozy in his 2007 run for office.

The affair tarnished the latter half of Mr Sarkozy's presidency and when he lost the 2012 election, he was placed under formal investigation for illegal campaign financing and taking advantage of Ms Bettencourt.

However, the charges against Mr Sarkozy were dropped in October 2013.

But Woerth is still facing five years in prison and de Maistre is charged with money laundering as well as taking advantage of Ms Bettencourt.

The heiress' former friend, the photographer Banier, is facing three years in prison, and his life partner, Martin d'Orgeval, is also in the dock, in the south-western port city of Bordeaux.

As for Ms Bettencourt, she was in 2011 declared unfit to run her own affairs after a medical report showed she had suffered from "mixed dementia" and "moderately severe" Alzheimer's disease since 2006.

Ms Bettencourt's fortune and the cosmetics giant L'Oreal have been placed under the guardianship of family members.

The psychologist's report is expected to be a key point of debate in the trial, which is to last five weeks.

Ms Bettencourt's father, Mr Eugene Schueller, founded L'Oreal in 1909, starting with hair dye and later branching out to form the world's largest cosmetics company, famous for the advertising slogan "Because I'm Worth It".

Ms Bettencourt, whose own mother died when she was five, started as an apprentice at L'Oreal aged 15 and is no stranger to controversy.

Both her father and her husband, Mr Andre Bettencourt, were accused of being ardent Nazi collaborators during World War II.