Obituary

Life of riches and scandal for L'Oreal heiress

Mrs Liliane Bettencourt, who inherited billions and her father's controlling interest in L'Oreal after his death in 1957, gave millions to education, humanitarian projects and the arts over the years.
Mrs Liliane Bettencourt, who inherited billions and her father's controlling interest in L'Oreal after his death in 1957, gave millions to education, humanitarian projects and the arts over the years.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

World's richest woman Liliane Bettencourt was thought to have been exploited by a younger man, among other allegations

PARIS • Mrs Liliane Bettencourt, the French heiress to the L'Oreal cosmetics fortune whose final years were vexed by allegations that she had fallen under the sway of a younger man and given him US$1.4 billion (S$1.9 billion), died on Wednesday at her home in Paris. She was 94.

She had captivated France since 2007, when a daughter's lawsuit charged that Mrs Bettencourt, ranked as the richest woman in the world, had been bamboozled by a photographer 25 years her junior.

Accused of exploiting her frailty, Francois-Marie Banier was bombarded at a trial in 2015 by the testimony of maids, doctors and others who called him the manipulator of a disoriented woman.

In 2015, he was sentenced to three years in prison and ordered to pay US$173 million in damages.

In 2010, the family soap opera also exploded into a government scandal after tape recordings and accusations by a former family accountant suggested that Mrs Bettencourt had kept US$98 million in secret Swiss bank accounts, given cash to Cabinet ministers and made illegal contributions to Mr Nicolas Sarkozy shortly before his election to the French presidency in 2007.

He denied any improprieties, but lost the presidency to Mr Francois Hollande in 2012 and, with it, his official immunity from prosecution. He was placed under investigation, but magistrates dropped the inquiry in 2013.

 

Regal, extroverted and a tireless socialite, Mrs Bettencourt was ranked by Forbes this year as the richest woman in the world at US$39.5 billion. She was the majority shareholder of L'Oreal, the world's largest cosmetics company.

The only child of a chemist, she grew up in a cocoon of privileges. Her father was a Nazi sympathiser who was spared from prosecution by the intervention of political allies, including his future son-in-law.

Her father died in 1957, leaving her billions and his controlling interest in L'Oreal.

She gave millions to education, medical research, humanitarian projects, museums and the arts.

Her only child, Francoise, was born in 1953. The principal beneficiary in her mother's will, Francoise had become alarmed when servants told her that Mrs Bettencourt was considering adopting Banier, 60.

By then, he had received a fortune in cash; art by Picasso, Matisse and Fernand Leger; life insurance annuities; and an island in the Seychelles.

He denied any manipulation, but admitted getting gifts during what he called a decades-old platonic relationship. Mrs Bettencourt did not dispute the gifts, which her lawyers valued at US$1.4 billion, saying she had given them freely. She denied, however, that she had considered adopting Banier and refused to submit to mental examinations. Mother and daughter were soon estranged.

In 2011, a judge ordered Mrs Bettencourt placed under her daughter's guardianship. Resolution of the family feud and the passing of control to another generation eased concerns over the future of L'Oreal.

The family and Nestle, the Swiss multinational food company, had long been the dominant shareholders, with roughly similar holdings.

The Bettencourt control was solidified in 2014 when L'Oreal bought back an 8 per cent stake from Nestle, giving the family a controlling interest of more than 33 per cent to Nestle's 23 per cent.

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 23, 2017, with the headline 'Life of riches and scandal for L'Oreal heiress'. Print Edition | Subscribe