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WWD Year In Fashion issue 12/13/2010


Liliane Bettencourt was at the center of France’s most explosive family feud this year, pitting the 88-year-old L’Oréal heiress against her daughter. The saga encompassed everything from class warfare, political scandal, vast riches, powerful conglomerates and potential downfalls. And it ended this month as suddenly and dramatically as it had escalated.

 

This story first appeared in the December 13, 2010 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

The story began simply enough, as a family affair in December 2007, when Bettencourt’s daughter, Françoise Bettencourt Meyers, brought a lawsuit against photographer François-Marie Banier. She alleged Banier exploited the weakness of Bettencourt, who gave him assets valued at about 1 billion euros, or $1.33 billion at current exchange. Banier denied any wrongdoing, while Bettencourt maintained she was sound and acting on her own free will.

 

But by this summer, the Bettencourt affair had reached full boil. It spilled over into the government arena when an allegation surfaced that then-labor minister Eric Woerth, while serving as France’s budget minister and UMP party treasurer in 2007, had received a campaign donation for presidential candidate Nicolas Sarkozy from the Bettencourts that was well above the legal limit.

 

The French media was whipped into a lather by successive revelations. Many, such as news that Bettencourt’s former butler had secretly taped her conversations with advisers, were leaked to the press.

 

The Bettencourt scandal morphed in countless directions. Some questioned whether the affair would impact L’Oréal’s future ownership. Were Bettencourt to have been placed under guardianship, as her daughter suggested, Bettencourt’s position on L’Oréal’s board could have been at risk. With a 31 percent stake in the company, she is its largest individual shareholder.

 

Yet, most industry experts agree that the Bettencourt affair had no impact on the French beauty giant’s operations.

 

However, some observers believe it helped undermine Sarkozy’s political standing as president, among other wide-reaching ramifications.

 

The family saga ended suddenly on Dec. 6. In a surprising move, Bettencourt Meyers abandoned all the legal proceedings she had initiated. After three years of strife, Bettencourt Meyers and her mother issued a joint statement saying they’d reconciled to end the conflicts that disrupted their family life and had reached a common accord.

 

“The decision that Françoise and I have taken is for me a source of hope,” stated Bettencourt. “It corresponds to my wish to see the family reunited. We’re going to move forward together, for our common good and for L’Oréal, which is so much a part of my life.”

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