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L'Oreal Took My Home, by Monica Waitzfelder, translated by Peter Bush

An ugly story of anti-Semitism, profiteering and denial behind a beauty giant

This is a shocking book. The cosmetics group L'Oréal ("Because you're worth it") sells beauty but, behind its massive campaign to arrest women's ageing process, there are accusations of an ugly story of theft, denial and profiteering.

Monica Waitzfelder tells how her German-Jewish grandfather was pressured to sign away his large building in Karlsruhe three years after Hitler became Chancellor. His property was transferred to the BGV Insurance Company and, in l954, resold to a L'Oréal subsidiary. In 1961, L'Oréal became the direct owner. Since then, it has refused to admit responsibility for events prior to its ownership, or to compensate Waitzfelder's mother.

This book alleges that there has been a deliberate policy of denial of the earlier theft against this family. Things become more toxic when L'Oréal's anti-Semitic past is revealed. Eugène Schueller, who created L'Oréal, was the ideologue and financier behind La Cagoule, an extreme right-wing organisation that, during Pétain's regime, assassinated a former minister and torched six Paris synagogues.

L'Oréal's Vichy history is steeped in collaboration. Schueller supported Hitler in l942 but, after the Liberation, "got a miraculous whitewash" thanks to André Bettencourt, who became his son-in-law. He sheltered Schueller and several collaborators from the Resistance. In 1991, L'Oréal's Vichy past became public knowledge; three years later, Bettencourt resigned, leaving his wife as the power behind L'Oréal.

Throughout this compelling work, Waitzfelder suggests that France's Vichy past still plays out in France today, and has a direct bearing on her claim. L'Oréal has enormous economic power, especially as advertising from the brand, and its subsidiaries, contributes vast sums to the French media.

When this book was published in France, journalists rushed to interview Waitzfelder, a respected opera director, but only Le Monde, Le Parisien and Actualité Juive dared to publish. In 2001, she took the case to the Supreme Court. Two years later, the public prosecutor ruled that there could be no trial. She writes that the judicial system "simply preferred not to open Pandora's box". L'Oréal is one of France's shop windows, and "people prefer their shop windows clean".

But Waitzfelder's fight isn't over: she is taking the claim to the European Court of Human Rights. In the meantime, I have thrown all of my L'Oréal products into the dustbin.

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