A celebrated French society photographer is to stand trial for defrauding the principal shareholder of L'Oréal out of almost a billion euros by taking advantage of her age and confused mental condition.
The daughter of Liliane Bettencourt, 86, the wealthiest woman in France, has brought a legal action for "abuse of weakness" against François-Marie Banier, 53, a writer-turned-photographer who is part of the Parisian fashion and art jet-set. The case will be heard in September.
The court action – a sharp escalation of legal wrangling which began 18 months ago - was announced by Mme Bettencourt's daughter, Françoise Bettencourt-Meyers, in an interview which will appear tomorrow in the French news magazine Le Point. In her first public comment on a family feud which has gripped France for over a year, she said that she was acting "in the interests of her mother" who had been "absolutely encircled" by "Banier and his friends".
Mme Bettencourt Myers promised that, if she won the case, she would hand over "for charitable purposes" the €993m in cash, art-works and life insurance policies which she claims that her mother has given to M. Banier over that last seven years.
Liliane Bettencourt owns one third of the shares of the giant French cosmetics company, L'Oréal. She is the second wealthiest person in France and one of the ten wealthiest women in the world.
She has rebuffed all attempts by her daughter, and the French legal system, to make her undergo independent checks on her mental condition. In an interview with the Journal du Dimanche in December last year, she said that she was still perfectly capable of running her own affairs. She described M. Banier, who befriended her after he was commissioned to take her photograph, as an "artist" and a man "full of ingenuity".
In December 2007, Mme Bettencourt's daughter brought a case against "x", or persons unknown, in the hope of settling the dispute privately. News of the feud leaked a year ago. Mme Bettencourt-Myers has now brought an action specifically against M. Banier, accusing him of "fraudulently abusing the state of ignorance or the state of weakness" of her mother and persuading her to give him "money and property of a value which defies comprehension".
If found guilty, M. Banier would face a maximum sentence of three years in prison and could be ordered to return the gifts.
After gaining some fame as a novelist and playwright, M. Banier has for many years specialised in photography and especially photography of the rich or famous. The subjects of his portraits include Samuel Beckett, Joyce Carol Oates, Isabelle Adjani, Princess Caroline of Monaco, Sophie Marceau and Johnny Depp.