PAPER CHASE: The weekend newspapers in Europe were awash with stories about the Bettencourt affair, which went to trial last Monday in the criminal court of Bordeaux, France.
Ten people have been charged with having abused the weakness of Liliane Bettencourt, the 92-year-old L’Oréal heiress and wealthiest woman in France. These include photographer François-Marie Banier; Patrice de Maistre, a past financial advisor to Bettencourt; Eric Woerth, France’s former budget minister; and Pascal Wilhelm, who had once seen Bettencourt’s affairs. They all deny wrongdoing.
The start of the trial was rocked when the judge said the former nurse of Bettencourt, also a defendant, was in critical condition after trying to hang himself on the eve of the hearing. It was the latest high-drama twist in the years-long saga, during which a butler secretly taped conversations and the case morphed into an affair of state and even had a play written in its honor.
It began in December 2007, when Bettencourt’s daughter Françoise Bettencourt Meyers brought a lawsuit against Banier. She alleged he exploited the weakness of her mother, who gave him assets valued at around 1 billion euros, or $1.13 billion at current exchange.
The U.K.’s Sunday Times called the saga “Dallas-sur-Seine” (a riff on Neuilly-sur-Seine, where Bettencourt lives) and quoted in its story Banier — who has as character witnesses Diane von Furstenberg and Corrine Paradis, the mother of singer and actress Vanessa Paradis (whose daughter is the photographer’s goddaughter) — as saying Bettencourt “took pleasure in giving the money” and was not “diminished mentally” when he knew her.
On Friday, Bettencourt Meyers took to the stand and reportedly told the court she started legal proceedings when Banier was trying to talk her mother into adopting him. She recalled Banier speaking to her father in “contemptuous, humiliating and mocking” terms. “Before his death, my father warned me that Banier is a swindler, that this will end in trial. Here we are,” she is quoted as saying in the press.
Jean-Victor Meyers, the older son of Bettencourt Meyers who had been made the legal guardian of Bettencourt in October 2011, replaced her on L’Oréal’s board in April 2012 and is a co-founder of the men’s knitwear label Exemplaire, also took to the stand to relate his grandmother’s declining mental capacities.
Le Figaro’s story on the Bettencourt case was entitled “The Bettencourt clan sticks together and condemns Banier,” while the Journal du Dimanche’s was “The Meyers’ revenge” and Le Parisien’s read “’I want to get my mother from this wasp’s nest.’”
The trial is set to last one more month.