Liliane Bettencourt, L’Oréal Heiress Vexed by Swindling Case, Is Dead at 94


Mr. Banier, who faced up to three years in prison, vehemently denied the daughter’s accusations and brushed off the retainers’ criticisms with literary references to Molière and a play by Jean Genet about maids plotting against a rich employer. “These are people who take revenge for a life they don’t have,” he said.

In May 2015, the court convicted Mr. Banier of abuse and money laundering and sentenced him to three years in prison, of which six months were suspended. He was also ordered to pay 158 million euros, or $173 million, in damages and a fine equivalent to about $418,000.

The Butler Was Taping

In 2010, the family soap opera also exploded into a government scandal after tape recordings secretly made by the dowager’s butler, and accusations by a former family accountant, suggested that Mrs. Bettencourt had kept $98 million in secret Swiss bank accounts, evaded taxes, given envelopes of cash to cabinet ministers and made illegal campaign contributions to Nicolas Sarkozy shortly before his election to the French presidency in 2007.

Mr. Sarkozy denied any improprieties, but he lost the presidency to the Socialist François Hollande in 2012, and with it his official immunity from prosecution. He was placed under formal investigation, suspected of having taken advantage of Mrs. Bettencourt’s mental frailty to obtain campaign funds. However, French magistrates dropped the inquiry in 2013.

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Liliane Bettencourt in 2004.

Credit
DPA, via European Pressphoto Agency

While she remained in the background most of her life, Mrs. Bettencourt had long tried to live down the stains of anti-Semitic activities and Nazi associations by her father and husband before and during World War II: a well-documented record of propaganda writings and material support for fascist groups, some of whose followers found refuge after the war at L’Oréal.

Regal, extroverted, a tireless socialite who loved balls and dinner parties, jewels and haute couture, Mrs. Bettencourt was ranked by Forbes this year as the richest woman in the world, with her net worth put at $39.5 billion. She was the majority shareholder of L’Oréal, the world’s largest, most powerful cosmetics company.

She was the only child of Eugène Schueller, a chemist who, in the kitchen of his Paris apartment in 1907, created a hair dye he called Auréale. His business, renamed L’Oréal in 1939, acquired Lancôme, Maybelline, Helena Rubinstein, Giorgio Armani and other brands, creating a giant that employs more than 77,000 people in 130 countries, had revenues of almost $26 billion in 2016 and is a prestigious economic engine for France.

Liliane grew up in a cocoon of privilege and secrets. Her father was a Nazi sympathizer who acquired property taken from Jews in Germany, supported a French fascist organization in the 1930s that met at L’Oréal’s Paris headquarters, and founded a wartime movement against Bolshevism, Judaism and the Freemasons. He was spared from prosecution as a collaborationist by the intervention of political allies, including his future son-in-law, who claimed he had joined the Resistance and saved Jews.

In 1950, Liliane Schueller married André Bettencourt, the scion of an old Norman Roman Catholic family. He had been a virulently anti-Semitic propagandist early in the war — a role hidden most of his life behind the sanitizing record of his Resistance exploits in the final stages of the war. For these, he was awarded the Croix de Guerre, made a chevalier of the Legion of Honor and promoted as a war hero in a political career that lofted him to prominence as a cabinet minister in several governments.

Mr. Schueller died in 1957, leaving his daughter billions and his controlling interest in L’Oréal. She became a director, but took a largely passive role as her father’s successors expanded the company around the world, ballooning the value of her holdings.

She lived in great opulence. Her principal home, an Art Moderne mansion behind cream walls and towering pines in Neuilly-sur-Seine, was filled with antique treasures and paintings by Monet, Matisse, Picasso and Mondrian. She owned properties in many countries, yachts in the Mediterranean and the Caribbean, and an island in the Seychelles.

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One of Mrs. Bettencourt’s homes, on the coast of Brittany.

Credit
Stephane Mahe/Reuters

Her largess was legendary. She gave millions to education, medical research, humanitarian projects, museums and the arts. She and her husband, who died in 2007, had long supported France’s conservative governments, and her soirées were a swirl of France’s social and political beau monde.

Riches From Cosmetics

Liliane Henriette Charlotte Schueller was born in Paris on Oct. 21, 1922, to Eugène Schueller and the former Louise Madeleine Berthe Doncieux. Her father, a university-trained chemist, had founded his company in 1909. His innovative dye had been a sensation. At a time when women could color their hair only black or red with natural dyes, it was one of the first stable synthetics to produce a range of subtle tints.

Liliane grew up with servants and tutors, a flow of V.I.P.’s through her spacious apartment on the Left Bank, Rolls-Royces and a sumptuous home overlooking the Brittany coast. Her mother died when she was 5, but her father took her along to his office on the Rue Royale and to his factories. At 15, she dabbled in an apprenticeship, learning to mix cosmetics and label bottles, but never seriously worked.

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The photographer François-Marie Banier, who was accused of swindling Mrs. Bettencourt, in 2015 before hearing the court’s guilty verdict in Bordeaux, France.

Credit
Mehdi Fedouach/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Her marriage to Mr. Bettencourt added political luster to the family. Between 1954 and 1973, he served in the cabinets of Pierre Mendes-France, Charles de Gaulle and Georges Pompidou, and in 1986 he was considered for prime minister by President François Mitterrand. He later joined L’Oréal and eventually became deputy chairman.

But he resigned in 1994 after exposés revealed that he had joined a fascist group called La Cagoule (the Cowl) early in the war and had written 60 anti-Semitic articles for La Terre Française, a Nazi organ. He admitted writing them and voiced regret, citing “errors of youth.” He said he had tried to rectify his mistakes by joining the Resistance.

It also emerged that Liliane’s father, besides backing La Cagoule in the 1930s, had founded the anti-Semitic Revolutionary Social Movement during the war and acquired property in Karlsruhe, Germany, that had been seized from Jews in 1938, according to a lawsuit by descendants of the original owners. It eventually became L’Oréal’s headquarters in Germany.

Liliane and André Bettencourt’s only child, Françoise, was born in 1953 and raised a Catholic. Unlike her mother, she was an intellectual, a pianist and author. She married Jean-Pierre Meyers, the grandson of a rabbi killed at Auschwitz, adopted her husband’s religion and raised her sons in Judaism.

After her father’s death in 2007, Mrs. Bettencourt-Meyers filed a criminal complaint alleging that Mr. Banier, a 60-year-old photographer, had manipulated her mother for lavish gain. Mr. Banier, whose work had been published in The New Yorker and Vanity Fair, had befriended Salvador Dalí, Princess Caroline of Monaco and Johnny Depp, and was known as a courtier of celebrity widows.

Mrs. Bettencourt-Meyers, the principal beneficiary in her mother’s will, said she had become alarmed when servants of her mother told her that Mrs. Bettencourt was considering adopting Mr. Banier. By then he had already received a fortune in cash, art by Picasso, Matisse and Fernand Léger, life insurance annuities and D’Arros, a 670-acre Indian Ocean island in the Seychelles.

Mr. Banier denied any manipulation but admitted receiving gifts during what he called a decades-old platonic relationship in which he brought artists and intellectuals into the life of a woman surrounded by stuffy businessmen and politicians.

Mrs. Bettencourt did not dispute the gifts, which her lawyers valued at $1.4 billion. (Some investigators said the value was $1.86 billion.) She said she had given them freely. She denied, however, that she had considered adopting Mr. Banier, and refused to submit to mental examinations. Mother and daughter were soon estranged.

Criminal charges of exploiting Mrs. Bettencourt were filed against Mr. Banier. But the case was postponed in July 2010 over revelations on tapes made in 2009 and 2010 by a former butler, Pascal Bonnefoy. In the tapes, Mrs. Bettencourt talked to advisers and Mr. Banier about tax evasion, Swiss accounts and political contacts. She also sounded forgetful at times. At one point she could not remember if she had given Mr. Banier the island.

Daughter Is Guardian

The tapes fed a stream of leaks to the press. One quoted Mr. Banier telling investigators that he did not want the island anyway because of “the mosquitoes” and “the sharks.”

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Ms. Bettencourt with her grandson Jean-Victor Meyers, left, in 2012 in Paris after a L’Oreal philanthropic function.

Credit
Benoit Tessier/Reuters

In 2012, the Seychelles government reported that the Bettencourt family had sold the island to a Seychelles-registered conservation organization with ties to the Save Our Seas Foundation, a Swiss organization. The Bettencourt women appeared to work out an armistice in December 2010 with an eight-page agreement that put Mrs. Bettencourt-Meyers’s husband, Jean-Pierre, in charge of the family holding company, Téthys.

But more trouble erupted when the daughter discovered that Mrs. Bettencourt had invested millions in an online gambling company at the urging of the lawyer who had negotiated their peace pact.

In October 2011, a judge ordered Mrs. Bettencourt placed under her daughter’s guardianship after a medical evaluation found she had dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. The evaluation was made by Bruno Daunizeau, a neurologist, who said she had failed to answer “test questions,” and by Jean-François Dartigues, a psychologist, who cited “anosognosia,” a condition in which the patient does not seem aware of the disorder.

Under the decision, Mrs. Bettencourt’s assets, including more than 30 percent of the voting shares of L’Oréal, were placed in a trust controlled by her daughter, while her grandson, Jean-Victor Meyers, was named to guard her health and personal affairs. In 2012, Mrs. Bettencourt gave up her seat on L’Oréal’s board of directors and her grandson was appointed to the board.

She is survived by her daughter and Mr. Meyers, as well as another grandson.

Resolution of the family feud, and the passing of control to another generation, eased concerns over the future of L’Oréal. The Bettencourt family and Nestlé, the Swiss multinational food company, had long been the dominant shareholders, with roughly similar holdings. Bettencourt control was solidified in 2014 when L’Oréal bought back an 8 percent stake from Nestlé, giving the family a controlling interest of more than 33 percent to Nestlé’s 23 percent.

In another twist, the police investigated allegations by Claire Thibout, described as a disgruntled former family accountant, that Mrs. Bettencourt had given nearly $200,000 to President Sarkozy’s 2007 presidential campaign through Éric Woerth, the labor minister and treasurer of the ruling political party. French laws limit contributions to $5,800 for candidates, $9,400 for political parties and $189 in cash.

Vehement denials were issued by Mrs. Bettencourt, President Sarkozy and Mr. Woerth, who resigned his party post. The Élysée Palace called the allegations “totally false,” but Mr. Sarkozy’s approval ratings fell, and it was clear that his government had been shaken. Independent investigations and tax audits were begun, but they were dropped after he left the presidency.

Mr. Woerth, however, went to court, accused of exploiting Mrs. Bettencourt for campaign donations. In its ruling in 2015, the French court that sentenced Mr. Banier cleared Mr. Woerth of all charges.

Eight of 10 defendants in the case, including several of Mrs. Bettencourt’s former wealth managers and Mr. Banier’s longtime companion, were found guilty and handed sentences that ranged from heavy fines to prison time.

Another associate of Mrs. Bettencourt’s — her former nurse, Alain Thurin — was also tried on charges of abusing her trust so that he could be included in her will. On the eve of his trial, he tried to hang himself. But in October 2015, prosecutors conceded that they did not have enough evidence to convict him, and a French court declared him not guilty.

Correction: September 21, 2017
An earlier version of this obituary misspelled part of the surname of a former French prime minister under whom Mrs. Bettencourt’s husband served. He was Pierre Mendes-France, not Mendez-France.

Correction: September 22, 2017

An earlier version of this obituary referred incorrectly to the Jews whose property was acquired by Mrs. Bettencourt’s father. They had not been sent to Auschwitz in 1938. (The Auschwitz death camp was not built until 1940.)

Correction: September 22, 2017

An earlier version of this obituary referred incorrectly to anosognosia, from which a psychologist said Mrs. Bettencourt suffered. It is a condition in which a patient does not seem aware of his or her disorder — not in which he or she does.

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