L'Oréal billionairess's €1bn gift: Because he's worth it?

Saga involving France's richest woman reaches the Paris courts

Liliane Bettencourt and François-Marie Banier had a defiant lunch alone this week in a mansion just west of Paris. Their friendship, unlikely to some, deeply suspicious to others, goes back more than two decades. Liliane Bettencourt, 87, is France's richest woman and the principal shareholder of the world's largest cosmetics company, L'Oréal. François-Marie Banier, 62, is a gay writer and photographer, who has befriended famous names from Salvador Dali to François Mitterrand and Johnny Depp.

Liliane says that without François-Marie's friendship, charm and intelligence she would have been imprisoned in the stiff, boring life of an elderly billionairess. François-Marie says that Liliane has, over the years, bestowed on him a "treasure of optimism, hope and elegance".

She has also – as he cheerfully admits – bestowed on him an estimated €1bn in cash, paintings and life insurance policies. A French court will consider today whether there is prima facie evidence that Mr Banier has systematically abused the "weakness" of an elderly and, it is alleged, mentally confused woman.

Ms Bettencourt refuses to accept that she is a victim and has refused to undergo a medical examination. She says she gave Mr Banier the money and property as a way of thanking him for their long friendship, including the exchange of more than 5,000 letters in the past 14 years.

In other words, to use the celebrated tag-line of the L'Oréal commercials, she decided to make her friend super-rich "because he is worth it". Mr Banier, in his first public comments on the two-year-old scandal, gave an interview to Le Monde newspaper this week. He was asked if he had any sense of guilt at accepting such fabulous sums. "Don't even think about it," he said. "These are gifts, which I refused for a long time. They are gifts from a woman whose mind is completely lucid."

He admitted that he was using some of the money to play the art market, including the purchase of one of the earliest daguerreotype photographs for $233,000 at Christie's in New York in October this year. The rest, he said, would be used for good causes, including a centre for traumatised children in Paris and subsidies to launch the careers of talented children from disadvantaged minorities.

"I don't have any children of my own," he said. "This money is only important because of what I can do with it. I would like to be able to change society, just a little." Mr Banier suggested that he was the victim of a French bourgeois establishment, which valued only money and detested him because he represented a more free-spirited, artistic view of the world. "The establishment means lies. It means the control of the world by money and by conspiracy. It means a society of polished bourgeois values, conservative, conventional values, without depth or emotion..." Mr Banier said he intended to help "queers, Arabs, blacks, whites, whatever... anyone who has been fenced out by the world of suits".

Ms Bettencourt is known to be generous to people she likes. It is the extraordinary scope of her generosity to Mr Banier that has angered the "world of suits" – her family and friends in the wealthy ghetto of Neuilly-sur-Seine, including the town's former mayor, Nicolas Sarkozy. "If she had given him €10m or €100m, perhaps people would have understood and shrugged," one family friend said this week. "But a billion euros? A billion! That's indecent."

To clarify, or maybe to confuse, the issue, Mr Banier's camp leaked information this week that the L'Oréal heiress has made generous gifts to other friends. The British former chief executive of L'Oréal, Sir Lindsay Owen-Jones, is said to have received €160m. Since Sir Lindsay was largely responsible for the growth of L'Oréal to world domination in the 1990s – and therefore largely responsible for Ms Bettencourt's riches – such a gift does not seem so extraordinary. The total of €1bn, said by French investigators to have been given to Mr Banier over 14 years, is estimated to amount to about one-third of her fortune.

A court at Nanterre must consider today whether Mr Banier should be the subject of a criminal investigation for "abuse of weakness". Previously, the court decided that there were no grounds for an investigation without a complaint from the alleged victim and without an independent assessment of Ms Bettencourt's mental condition. An appeal ruling has suggested that the case should be re-considered.

Ms Bettencourt's only daughter, Françoise Bettencourt Myers, began the legal action two years ago. The state prosecution service has been reluctant to get involved. In an attempt to oblige her mother to undergo independent tests on her health, Ms Bettencourt Myers applied this week to have her made a ward of court. The application was refused.

Who is François-Marie Banier? To his friends, he is a brilliant companion and raconteur, a talented writer and photographer. Since the 1970s, when he was an angelically handsome, blond, overtly gay young man about town, he has put together an extraordinary list of friends and acquaintances. He was a friend and companion of Dali. He amused President Mitterrand. He knew Samuel Beckett. He remains a friend of Princess Caroline of Monaco, French actress and singer Isabelle Adjani and Johnny Depp, who often stays at Mr Banier's flat in Paris.

To his enemies, Mr Banier is a disturbed victim of childhood abuse by his father; he is a former gigolo, who has always found ways of ingratiating himself with the rich and famous. He has a history, they say, of friendships with rich old ladies. In the late 1980s and 1990s, he was a companion of Madeleine Castaing, a wealthy antiques dealer and interior decorator, who also gave him generous gifts. When she was 85, she was injured when she fell down a flight of stairs in her mansion, also in Neuilly-sur-Seine.

Her grandson, Frederic Castaing, told the magazine Marianne this week that the family was convinced that Mr Banier had "pushed her downstairs when she refused to give him something". Mr Banier says that the old lady fell while they were playing "cat" – a French playground game, similar to tag.

In the court hearing today, it will be alleged that Mr Banier has acquired, in the past 14 years, an increasing influence over Ms Bettencourt. Her daughter's lawyer, Olivier Metzner, will submit evidence suggesting that the L'Oréal heiress suffers from "memory loss and passages of time when she is not in touch with reality".

Between 2002 and 2007, he will say, Mr Banier received paintings by Matisse, Mondrian, Léger, Man Ray and Chirico. He also received a series of money transfers, including €250m in 2003 and again in 2006. In a written statement earlier this year, Ms Bettencourt said that "knowing how difficult my daughter can be" she had "decided to split up my fortune while I am still alive".

Her lawyer, Georges Kiejman, says that Ms Bettencourt has submitted her own report by a psychiatrist which described her as being in "perfect mental health". Acquaintances, including it is said Mr Sarkozy, say there is no obvious sign that Ms Bettencourt is senile or confused. Is €1bn a suspiciously generous gift to an old friend? Is Ms Bettencourt in her right mind? Does she have a perfect right to decide what to do with her own fortune?

The question facing the 15th chamber of the criminal court in Nanterre today is a simpler one. Is there enough evidence to proceed with a full-scale criminal investigation?

Heiresses: Taken to the cleaners

* Anthony Marshall, the only son of American heiress Brooke Astor, was accused by his nephew of taking advantage of his mother's mental frailty to plunder her estate, estimated at $198m, while allowing her to live in squalor. Marshall was found guilty but he claims he is too ill to go to jail. He will be sentenced later this month.

* Susanne Klatten, Germany's wealthiest woman and the heiress of the BMW fortune, was expertly seduced by a Swiss gigolo, Helg Sgarbi, who induced her to give him €7m. When he upped the ante, demanding €49m to keep their affair secret, she went to the police. Sgarbi is serving a six-year jail sentence.

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