The scandal over Liliane Bettencourt’s L’Oréal fortune is exposing the way French high society operates, says Patrick Marnham. And it is harming President Sarkozy in the polls
It all started as a banal family squabble over €17 billion. Liliane Bettencourt is heir to the L’Oréal family fortune and among the 20 wealthiest individuals in the world. She is 87 years old, a widow and rather deaf, and she lives alone with half a dozen servants in a mansion in Neuilly, the most expensive suburb in the Paris region. Last year her daughter, Françoise, discovered that her mother had given about €1 billion to a pushy society photographer who had also become a major beneficiary in Liliane’s will. So the daughter applied to have her mother made a ward of court. Now the affair has become a national political scandal, damaging the president of the republic and opening up the richest and most secretive level of French society like a slice of sponge cake.
Liliane Bettencourt’s father Eugène Schueller founded L’Oréal when she was a child and when it only employed ten people, one of them eventually being her. Schueller, who was Jewish, was also a supporter of La Cagoule, the pro-Fascist terrorist organisation that attempted to mount a paramilitary coup in France in 1937. Liliane’s mother died when she was five and her father never remarried. As she grew up Liliane and her father turned a small family firm into a worldwide cosmetics empire, to which Liliane was the sole heir. Liliane married Andre Bettencourt, an influential politician who started as a Catholic monarchist member of La Cagoule. He died in 2007.
The Bettencourt family dispute has cast a spotlight on the relationship between President Sarkozy and big money, the impotence of the judicial system when faced with allegations of political corruption, and the normally discreet lifestyle of France’s ultra-rich.
With each episode in the quarrel, a new can of worms has been opened. At first the daughter merely seemed to be complaining about the photographer, François-Marie Banier, 62, who lives with his partner Martin, an interior decorator, at an address that started as a small studio where he now owns the entire building. There were allegations that François-Marie had threatened violence against his benefactor. Liliane agrees that the photographer is a very passionate man who flies off the handle when he is thwarted and who frequently demands money, but she insists that he has never laid a finger on her. And she remains a fan. ‘I like well brought up young men,’ she told Le Monde. ‘But I like young men with imagination even more. And François-Marie has such an appetite for beauty and such artistic vision.’ The daughter alleges that he also has an unhealthy appetite for her mother’s money and that Liliane has given him about €1 billion, including an island in the Seychelles. Her mother seems to be unaware that she had ever owned this island.
The application for a court order became a criminal case when Françoise disclosed that she had obtained evidence based on illegal telephone taps made by her mother’s former butler, Pascal. Liliane objected that it was not entirely normal to be spied on in one’s own house, particularly by one’s ‘marvellous’ butler — who sadly had been suborned by one’s own daughter. ‘She wants to cross me out and replace me,’ said Liliane. ‘But I advise her to wait patiently until the day of my death rather than doing everything possible to speed it up.’ Instead of following this advice, Françoise revealed that she also had statements made by her mother’s book-keeper, Claire, hitherto the soul of discretion. And Claire was alleging that Liliane had been making very large undisclosed donations to Nicolas Sarkozy’s expenses during the 2007 presidential election. At this point the Liliane Bettencourt story took its place in the great tradition of French political affaires.
These under-the-counter contributions — €150,000 in all — had apparently been paid in cash in manila envelopes to Eric Woerth, who was at the time the treasurer of the UMP, Sarkozy’s party. Following the election Mr Woerth became the budget minister and as such he was in charge of tax investigations. From then on the allegations flowed thick and fast. Mr Woerth was suspected of shielding Liliane from routine tax audits. His wife, Florence, was given a well-paid job by Liliane’s tax adviser. Following this, Mr Woerth nominated the tax adviser for the Légion d’Honneur. Furthermore, ordinary French taxpayers have now learnt that under a controversial ‘tax ceiling’ introduced by Sarkozy, Liliane receives an annual tax rebate of €30 million. It also transpires that she holds two illegal bank accounts in Switzerland.
Mr Woerth is no longer the budget minister, he is now the minister for employment. But this makes matters worse, since he is in charge of Sarkozy’s very unpopular programme to reform the French pensions system. He is currently seen as ‘Monsieur Deep Cuts’, the man urging the nation to share the pain.
Running parallel to the political scandal, France has been allowed a rare glimpse into the lifestyle of the aristocracy of money. The Bettencourts have apparently been funding numerous right-wing politicians for many years. The comings and goings at the mansion house in Neuilly were watched from below stairs by the staff, on closed circuit television cameras. They included two former presidents, Pompidou and Chirac, as well as Danielle, widow of President Mitterrand. Bernard-Henri Lévy, the progressive television philosopher, was another unexpected caller, as was Bernard Kouchner, the ex-socialist foreign minister. And yet another guest was Nicolas Sarkozy himself, when he was the dynamic young mayor of Neuilly in the 1980s. Claire said that before many of these visits she was asked to provide a manila envelope and she suspects that Mr Sarkozy came to lunch and departed with the cash. President Sarkozy denies this. ‘Can you see me coming for lunch and leaving with a packet stuffed full of bank-notes?’ he enquired indignantly during a television interview. And from all over France one could hear his political opponents shouting back, ‘Yes we can!’
As a result of Françoise’s disastrous attempt to restrict her mother’s freedom, more and more confidential information has been published about Bettencourt family affairs. Liliane and her close family remain the leading shareholders in L’Oréal and Liliane received €278 million in share dividends alone last year. Her mansion in Neuilly is worth €30 million, she owns a coastal estate in Majorca and family houses with superb views in Brittany and Normandy. Her collection of Old Masters is estimated to be worth €20 million, although she has apparently given 12 of these paintings to satisfy the appetite for beauty of François-Marie.
In the court proceedings, matters went from bad to worse when the public prosecutor appointed to deal with the criminal investigation turned out to be a personal friend of Sarkozy’s. Liliane’s tax adviser has meanwhile reassured her that she must not worry about her daughter’s application since, ‘Even if we lose the case, we will win on appeal — as the prosecutor is a good friend of ours.’
Liliane’s servants say that since her husband died they have watched her slow decline and the increasing demands of her hangers-on. Claire claims that at times they have demanded absurd sums like €1 million to buy property. At other times they have demanded to see jewels in the safe at Neuilly, which she has refused to show them. She says that she approached Françoise out of concern for Liliane. But Liliane’s lawyer, Georges Kiejman, who used to act
for François Mitterrand, pours scorn on this story. Mr Kiejman is very aggressive. He has mocked Liliane’s 55-year-old daughter for behaving like a cry baby, and suggests that she is upset because Liliane finds François-Marie more amusing than her daughter — ‘which would not be difficult’.
Kiejman also points out that the daughter’s lawyer, Maître Metzner, previously acted for Dominique de Villepin, the ex-prime minister who is Sarkozy’s most passionate political enemy. It was Metzner who managed to keep de Villepin out of prison earlier this year when he was accused of forging Sarkozy’s name on a list of illegal Swiss bank accounts. Kiejman believes that the case against Liliane is a put-up job to destroy Sarkozy’s chances of re-election in 2012. In a spirited exchange in court he hinted that it was Metzner who had organised the illegal telephone taps. And Kiejman added, ‘Watch out, Maître. I am well known for my left hook.’ The judge had to call an adjournment on the grounds that she did not have a first aid team in court. This week Kiejman said that Liliane’s patience was running out and that his client was considering cutting her daughter Françoise out of her will.
None of this is good news for President Sarkozy. Since the L’Oréal family scandal became political, his support among right-wing voters has dipped from 80 to 62 per cent. Meanwhile his Socialist opponents are behaving with grave dignity, refusing to get involved and talking about ‘respect for the presumption of innocence’. The last thing the Socialists want is to turn a suicidal right-wing tribal bloodletting into a party political battle. They can afford to wait until 7 September, when the trade unions are organising a day of national protest against pensions reform.