Embarrassment for Sarkozy as £1bn L'Oréal feud comes to court

Fabulous wealth; an iconic brand-name; a family divided; a supposedly dotty, octogenarian heiress; an allegedly predatory, celebrity photographer; secret tape recordings by a butler; a political scandal pointing to the pinnacle of the French state...

All the incendiary plot-lines of a great TV melodrama – "Dallas-sur-Seine" meets "The West Wing of the Elysée" – twisted around the L'Oréal family feud trial which began just west of Paris yesterday. The trial lasted only one morning before it was adjourned, probably until the autumn, at the request of all parties. It was as if there was simply too much spicy evidence – or alleged evidence – for France's greatest legal minds to savour all at once.

The furore surrounding the trial is unlikely to abate, though. A senior cabinet minister, Eric Woerth, is already fighting for his political life. President Nicolas Sarkozy has been deeply embarrassed by the implication, in secretly recorded tapes, that he intervened to try to stifle the case. What began as a mother and daughter spat – admittedly over €1bn (£824bn) – threatens to turn into a full-blown "affaire d'état".

At the centre of the trial is an unlikely 20-year friendship between two figures from utterly different Parisian worlds. Liliane Bettencourt, 87, is, in theory, France's richest woman and the principal shareholder of the world's largest cosmetics company, L'Oréal. She has bestowed €1bn in cash, paintings and life insurance policies on François-Marie Banier, 63, an overtly gay writer and photographer and turbulent friend of the famous from Salvador Dali to Johnny Depp.

Liliane says that she wanted to repay François-Marie for the "treasure of optimism, hope and elegance" that their friendship gave her in her declining years. Her only child, Françoise Bettencourt-Meyers, says that Mr Banier and his "clan" have "surrounded" and tricked a mentally enfeebled old woman.

She insists she does not care a hoot about the billion euros. Liliane has already given her, and her two sons, legal title to her 30 per cent share of L'Oréal, worth around €16bn.

Her only motive in bringing the accusation of "abuse of weakness", Françoise says, is her love for her mother and her contempt for Mr Banier. She is claiming just one euro in damages but hopes that the court will jail Mr Banier and return the €1bn to her mother.

Liliane's celebrity lawyer, George Kiejman, yesterday contemptuously handed Françoise's celebrity lawyer, Olivier Metzner, a cheque for one euro – which he contemptuously refused.

Enter Pascal Bonnefoy, who secretly taped 100 hours of Liliane Bettencourt's conversations with advisers – and with Mr Banier – over 12 months. Mr Bonnefoy, whose name means "good faith", was for more than a decade Liliane Bettencourt's butler in her mansion close to the Bois de Boulogne in Neuilly-sur-Seine, the wealthiest town in France, just west of Paris proper.

He says he made the tapes, and transferred them to CDs, because he was horrified by Mr Banier's behaviour. He handed the CDs to Ms Bettencourt's daughter last month, who gave them to the police.

The court decided yesterday that it should adjourn sine die to consider the tapes and whether or not they were admissible. The presiding judge, Isabelle Prévost-Desprez, will personally lead an investigation into the recordings.

Transcripts were partly leaked two weeks ago to a magazine and an investigative website. The contents were explosive. They revealed that Ms Bettencourt senior had made the photographer her "sole heir" (excluding the €16bn in L'Oréal shares already signed over to her daughter and grandsons). They also revealed that she had a kind of terrified fascination for Mr Banier.

"He is someone I like very much," she says at one stage. "He is very intelligent, very. But he is killing me... He becomes too demanding. 'Give me this, give me that...'."

The tapes also projected the Bettencourt affair, which has gripped France for two years, into a new, explosively political dimension. The former mayor of Neuilly-sur-Seine, where both mother and daughter live, is Nicolas Sarkozy.

The transcripts of the tapes suggest that the President, who knows the Bettencourt family well, tried to stop the case ever coming to trial. They also suggest that the Elysée Palace had promised to use "people we know" within the justice system to have any judgement against Mr Banier reversed on appeal.

Worse still, the tapes allegedly reveal Ms Bettencourt's advisers were hiding part of her fortune from the French tax man, and that Eric Woerth, then budget minister, had asked the billionairess's chief financial adviser to give a job to his accountant wife, Florence. The CDs are also said to contain much discussion about contributions by Ms Bettencourt to political campaign funds. Mr Woerth, now employment minister, is also treasurer and chief fund raiser of Mr Sarkozy's centre-right party, the Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP).

Uproar has ensued. Ms Bettencourt's taxes are to be audited. Florence Woerth has resigned from her job. Mr Woerth refuses to resign. The left-wing opposition says that the "corrupt Sarkozy state" has been laid bare. The president's approval rating fell yesterday to a new low of 26 per cent. And all because of a little family quarrel...

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Bathroom Showroom Manager / Bathroom Sales Designer

£22 - £25k basic + Commission=OTE £35k + Benefits: Guru Careers: A Bathroom Sh...

Guru Careers: Marketing Executive / Digital Marketing Executive

COMPETITIVE: Guru Careers: A Marketing / Digital Marketing Executive (CRM, Eve...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive / Foreign Exchange Dealer - OTE £40,000+

£16000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Foreign Exchange Dealer is re...

Recruitment Genius: IT Engineer

£19000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity now exists for a...

Day In a Page

Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

Britain's 24-hour culture

With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

The addictive nature of Diplomacy

Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
8 best children's clocks

Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones