In recent weeks, a contentious and highly publicized courtroom battle has been brewing in Paris, France. At issue is whether France’s richest woman, Liliane Bettancourt, heiress to the multi-billion dollar L’Oreal Cosmetics fortune, is the victim of possible exploitation, elder abuse and undue influence. The case began in 2007 when the heiress daughter accused photographer Francious-Marie Banier of taking advantage of the heiress’ fragile mental condition. The case eventually widened to the nine others on trial, including some of Bettencourt’s closest advisers and staff who are also accused of taking advantage of the elderly widow. Ten people close to France’s richest woman Liliane Bettencourt were charged and put on trial for exploiting the frail L’Oréal heiress in an explosive drama that began with a family feud. Ms. Bettancourt is now 92 years old and suffering from dementia. The drama unfolds with a bitter feud between mother-daughter, a butler’s betrayal, unscrupulous friends, allegations of tax evasion, illegal campaign financing, and exploitation of Ms. Bettencourt’s weakend mental state. This real life story reads like a movie script involving the world’s 12th largest fortune which end has not yet been written.
The Photographer: Over the past several years, Ms. Bettancourt developed a seemingly suspicious friendship with a much younger man. This man, photographer Francios-Marie Banier, is 25 years younger than Ms. Bettancourt. He met her on a photoshoot in 2005. From 2006 to 2010, the two developed an odd relationship. To date, Ms. Bettancourt has given Mr. Banier over $400 million. The heiress, worth an estimated $38 billion (33 billion euros) according to Forbes magazine, showered Banier with gifts, such as paintings by Picasso and Matisse, life insurance funds and millions of euros in cash. Ms. Bettencourt also made him her sole heir, which she would later revoke. Ms. Bettancourt’s family accuses Ms. Banier of being a conman, and subjecting Ms. Bettancourt to abuse. The heiress’s former friend, the photographer Banier, is facing three years in prison
The Benevolent Butler: Concerned about his employer’s growing fragility, Pascal Bonnefoy in 2009 placed a recorder in the heriress’ office, which shocking contents would reveal her weakened mental state and how her entourage was manipulating and exploiting her.
The Former Estate Manager: Another one of the accused, Patrice de Maistre, who managed Bettencourt’s fortune, is heard in the tapes encouraging her to commit tax evasion, including hiding the purchase of a Seychelles island, according to media accounts of the recordings. De Maistre is also accused of getting Bettencourt to hand over envelopes of cash to members of the then-ruling UMP, such as his friend, Eric Woerth, a former minister and campaign treasurer for ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy in his 2007 run for office. The affair tarnished the latter half of Sarkozy’s presidency and when he lost the 2012 election he was placed under formal investigation for illegal campaign financing and taking advantage of Bettencourt. However the charges were dropped against Sarkozy in October 2013. Woerth is still facing five years in prison and De Maistre is charged with money laundering as well as taking advantage of Bettencourt.
The Rest of the Cast: A lawyer, a notary, the former manager of Bettencourt’s Seychelles island as well as a former nurse to the 92-year-old are also among those accused of exploiting her mental fragility. Just hours before the trial began, the former nurse allegedly tried to hang himself in the woods near his house.
The Heiress: The ailing billionaire was in 2011 declared unfit to run her own affairs after a medical report showed she suffered from “mixed dementia” and “moderately severe” Alzheimer’s disease. Her fortune and the cosmetics giant L’Oreal have been placed under the guardianship of family members.
The judge has now heard the merits of each side’s argument. A judgment will likely be rendered in early summer. For now, this case serves as a reminder that elderly persons, especially those with cognitive challenges, may be targets of elder abuse, or undue influence.
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