Graham Tearse: L'Oréal senility case goes beyond mere cosmetics

TODAY the cast of the extraordinary soap opera that is the bitter feud tearing apart one of Europe's richest families will briefly swap their usual luxury backdrops for an ugly concrete bunker at the heart of a run-down, high-rise suburb of Paris.

For it is within the grim and congested law courts of Nanterre that Parisian socialite and photographer Franois-Marie Banier will face a charge that he abused the alleged senility of 87-year-old L'Oral heiress Liliane Bettencourt to acquire gifts totalling one billion euros.

Banier, a 63-year-old Parisian, denies the charge for which he faces a maximum three-year jail sentence and a fine of €375,000. But the judges are expected to immediately adjourn his trial after it opens, following extraordinary revelations from Bettencourt's butler.

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Last month the major-domo handed over tapes of conversations he secretly recorded between his mistress and her close advisers. Pascal Bonnefoy said he made the recordings, over a 12-month period to May with a microphone hidden on a drawing-room table in Bettencourt's town mansion near Paris, after realising that "Madame was being abused".

For a while, the story that began unfolding in 2007 provided light relief. But "butlergate" has shot l'affaire Bettencourt to a higher level.

The fallout has rocked the government to the point that this week Prime Minister Franois Fillon pleaded before parliament that "everyone must keep their nerves solid." He was defending his labour minister, Eric Woerth, over allegations he and his wife connived in helping Bettencourt to dodge taxes on millions placed in secret Swiss bank accounts.

So just how did the L'Oral matriarch find herself at the centre of a scandal that could yet undo President Nicolas Sarkozy's hopes of a second term? The simple answer, of course, is her €16 billion fortune, which places her as France's wealthiest woman.

The case against Banier is brought by Bettencourt's daughter Franoise, Liliane's only child and heir, after she discovered that between 2001 and 2007 the socialite had received from her mother what a police investigation determined was at least €933 million in gifts. Franoise, 57, claims her mother is "mentally frail". Liliane claims her "introverted" daughter is jealous of "outgoing" Banier.

But behind the mother-daughter feud is a series of darker sub-plots.

Liliane holds the majority share in L'Oral, a flagship of French enterprise founded by her father, and which multinational Nestl, a major minority shareholder, is keen to win control of. Enter Sarkozy, desperate to avoid the cosmetics giant falling into foreign ownership, which the allegations of Liliane's senility could, if proven, make possible.

The butler's tapes reveal a conversation between Liliane and her chief financial adviser, Patrice de Maistre, who informs her that one of Sarkozy's former judicial affairs advisers, Patrick Ouart, had reassured him that while nothing could be done to stop Banier's trial, the Elyse was able to ensure a favourable outcome for Banier on appeal. Maistre says Ouart was confident of the outcome because "we know the chief prosecutor very, very well". Adding to Sarkozy's embarrassment is the separate revelation that he twice met with Maistre at the Elyse Palace to discuss the trial.

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That the president would arrange the outcome of Banier's trial is one thing, that his then budget minister, France's chief taxman, Eric Woerth, helped Bettencourt distil her fortune in secret Swiss accounts is yet another. For the tapes reveal Maistre discussing with Liliane two tax-dodging accounts in Switzerland totalling €78m. Meanwhile, Woerth's wife Florence was Bettencourt's investment adviser from 2007 until the scandal forced her retirement last month. But there was more; Maistre can be heard in the recordings, published on French website Mediapart, telling Bettencourt that Woerth had asked him to hire Florence. Just five months later, Woerth decorated Maistre, 62, with the lgion d'honneur, France's highest civil order of merit.

Woerth, appointed labour minister in March and in charge of negotiating bitterly-contested state pension reforms, has denied either he or his wife knew of the secret accounts.

Unlike most soap operas, after today's brief episode, the second series in ‘l'affaire Bettencourt' promises to be the most entertaining yet.

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