Photographer charged with fraud in latest twist to L'Oréal affair

Heiress's family dropped complaint against Banier but state prosecutor has pursued case regardless

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The Independent Online

A celebrity photographer who received gifts worth €1bn from France's wealthiest woman will be accused formally today of fraud, money laundering and embezzlement.

François-Marie Banier, 64, was arrested by police in a dawn raid in Paris on Monday and will appear before an investigative magistrate in Bordeaux this afternoon. His civil partner, the artist Martin d'Orgeval, is also expected to be placed under formal investigation for his alleged part in the affair.

Mr Banier's friendship with Liliane Bettencourt, the octogenarian chief shareholder of the cosmetics giant L'Oréal, ignited a vicious family quarrel four years ago which spiralled into a financial and political scandal.

Mr Banier, a photographer and friend to French and Hollywood celebrities, will be accused of taking advantage of Ms Bettencourt's confused state of mind to persuade her to give him property, art works and cash and life insurance policies worth over €1bn (£840m).

He appeared to have avoided legal recriminations last year when he handed back the equivalent of €600m but kept other gifts, including property in Paris, worth an estimated €400m. Ms Bettencourt's estranged daughter, Françoise Bettencourt-Meyers, agreed last December to drop her legal complaint against Mr Banier as part of a reconciliation with her mother, which has since broken down. Nonetheless, the state prosecutor in Bordeaux, to whom parts of the case have been transferred, decided last summer to reopen criminal investigations into possible fraud and "abuse of mental weakness".

Mr Banier and Mr D'Orgeval, who is accused of receiving valuable books and art from Ms Bettencourt, are likely to be the first of several former friends and advisers to be formally accused of defrauding her.

In October, the 89-year-old heiress was placed under the legal guardianship of her estranged daughter and her two grandsons – a ruling which Ms Bettencourt and her lawyers have been trying to overturn.

In the summer of 2010, the affair exploded into a political scandal when the French media published tapes, secretly recorded by a butler, of Ms Bettencourt's muddled conversations with advisers and friends, including Mr Banier. It emerged from the tapes that Ms Bettencourt had been evading taxes and had hired the wife of President Nicolas Sarkozy's former party treasurer and chief campaign fundraiser, Eric Woerth, for her private office.

At the same time, her former accountant alleged that she had given illegal campaign donations to several politicians on the centre-right, including Mr Sarkozy. Under pressure from the Elysée Palace, the accountant partially withdrew this allegation.

Several spin-offs of the affair, including allegations of illegal political funding, are the subject of other legal investigations.

Mr Banier's lawyers complained yesterday that he and his partner had been arrested "like fugitives" and kept overnight in the grim Santé prison in Paris. They said that there was no need for such tactics by the legendarily tough investigating magistrate Jean-Michel Gentil, who is in charge of the case.

According to the French media, the magistrate wants to question Mr Banier about €15.5m in bank transfers that he received in recent years from a Bettencourt account in Switzerland. He will also be asked about an island in the Indian Ocean owned by Ms Bettencourt, which was allegedly transferred to his control.