The following story could have been written by the 17th-century French playwright Molière. It is the tragi-comic tale of a deaf and confused 87-year-old heiress, surrounded by quarrelling and mutually detesting advisers and favourites who may or may not also be predators. The play could be entitled The Bewildered Billionairess. It's set not in the 17th century, however, but in the very recent past – between 25 May 2009 and 11 May 2010, to be precise.
The location is a mansion in Neuilly-sur-Seine, the wealthiest town in France, just outside Paris. The dialogue could equally come from a film script about the hidden world of greed/sliminess/snobbishness/hypocrisy/anti-Semitism that sometimes lies below the fine old carpet of the Roman Catholic haute-bourgeoisie in France.
The extracts are, in fact, taken from the transcripts of real conversations secretly recorded by the old woman's former butler. The 100 hours of tapes have created a political scandal in France. They threaten to bring down a senior cabinet minister, Eric Woerth, and could deal a fatal blow to President Nicolas Sarkozy's already limping presidency. The tapes may become the principal exhibit in an explosive trial – which opened last week and then adjourned – and could also decide the future of the world's largest cosmetics company, L'Oréal.
The old woman at the centre of the drama is Liliane Bettencourt, France's wealthiest woman and the only daughter of the founder of L'Oréal, Eugène Schueller. Her only child, Françoise Bettencourt-Meyers, 56, has been taking legal action for more than two years to try to prove that her mother's mental powers are failing and that she has been swindled out of almost €1bn by an unlikely friend – François-Marie Banier, 63, a gay writer turned jet-set photographer, whose friends have ranged from Salvador Dali to Johnny Depp.
The other main character is Patrice de Maistre, 63, the manager of Ms Bettencourt's €17bn fortune and boss of her holding company, Clymène.
In the transcripts, Ms Bettencourt emerges as clearly deaf and often confused, but far from dotty. There are long passages in which Mr de Maistre wheedles his employer into giving him the "present" of a large sum of money to buy a yacht.
There are also conversations about hidden bank accounts in Switzerland. It is these extracts (not all included here) that have caused a political scandal in France.
It emerges that the the former budget minister, Eric Woerth – then running a high-profile campaign to catch wealthy tax avoiders – had solicited a job for his wife, Florence, managing Ms Bettencourt's finances. As treasurer of Mr Sarkozy's centre-right party, he has also been soliciting modest campaign contributions from the elderly billionairess.
It also emerges that Mr Sarkozy was prepared to intervene to try to tip the legal case in the old lady's favour.
In other conversations, it appears that a valuable painting and priceless vase have gone missing. So, it appears, has the legal title to a €500m island in the Seychelles.
Mr Banier emerges as someone who both fascinates and terrifies Ms Bettencourt. He insists that he is a cultured artist who despises money, but is described by other characters, including Ms Bettencourt, as a man who "asks for too much".
Pascal Bonnefoy, the ex-butler, says he recorded the tapes because he was horrified by what was going on. He gave them to Ms Bettencourt's daughter, who gave them to the police.
The court that is hearing the complaint against Mr Banier for "abuse of weakness" decided on Thursday to "investigate" the tapes before proceeding with the trial. Another court decided that, although illegally obtained, the tapes were in the "public interest" and could be published by Le Point magazine and the investigative website Mediapart.
Extensive extracts in English are published here for the first time.
17 September 2009
Liliane Bettencourt: I have a feeling Banier is going to come tomorrow to ask me for something. Do you know what for?
Patrice de Maistre: "No. He's not going to ask you for more money?"
LB: No. It's not that.
PdeM: I don't know.
LB: Because I went to the notary yesterday. There are still some things, I think ... which haven't been left [in her will] to anyone.
PdeM: You are not going to give your jewels to Banier.
LB: Who should they go to then?
PdeM: I don't know. We'll think of something. If the worst comes to the worst, you could sell them. You could give them away to the poor. Giving them to Banier, where's the sense in that?
LB: No, no, no.
PdeM: It wouldn't be right.
23 October 2009
PdeM: I'm going to come straight to the point and it's a little awkward.... Do you still feel like giving me a present? If you do, it should be through Switzerland, not here. And it would allow me to buy the boat of my dreams. There you are.
LB: The boat?
PdeM: Yes. The one that I want to buy. But, you know, it is neither here nor there. I could perfectly well live without it.
LB: Very well. So, how are we going to do it?
PdeM: I have to see how I can get the money back here.
LB: From Switzerland?
PdeM: That's it. So that I can give it to you and afterwards you can give it to me.
LB: Are you going to Switzerland to get it?
PdeM: No, not me. I'll find someone else. I don't want the banker to know it's for me. I don't want anyone to be able to say.... In any case, if you do it, it will make me a very happy man.
29 October 2009
PdeM: Banier is very greedy.
LB: He is brilliant but he can't behave himself.
PdeM: He has never crossed the line with me. If he tried, I can tell you, things would get nasty between him and me. With you, I know, he has given you a lot of enjoyment. It's true – he's an intelligent and creative man – but, at the same time, I've seen him become violent with you a couple of times. That's not on.
LB: He's not well brought up.
PdeM: And he is seething.... I told him, if we win the case [against Ms Bettencourt's daughter], we should move on. But he doesn't want to.
LB: He wants his pound of flesh.
PdeM: Yes, like a hunting dog. He needs to bite something ...
LB: When you least expect it....
19 November 2009
Mr de Maistre explains to Ms Bettencourt that he should ensure that her favourite grandson takes over the family stake in L'Oréal.
PdeM: The Angelli family did that. It's the grandson, John Elkann, who took over.
LB: Is that a Jewish name?
PdeM: Yes. Isn't that odd? They are always where the money is. [He laughs.]
LB: I am not anti-Semitic at all. [Her daughter, Françoise, is married to a rabbi's son, Jean-Pierre Meyers.]
12 March 2010
It emerges that Ms Bettencourt has made Mr Banier her "sole heir" (apart from long-term ownership of her 30 per cent share in L'Oréal, already transferred to her estranged daughter and two grandsons).
Jean-Michel Normand (notary): [Banier] wants you to change the terms of the will in his favour. He prefers....
LB: He prefers what?
J-MN: To no longer be named.
LB: As what?
J-MN: As legatee.
LB: As obligatory?
J-MN: No, legatee. You know the document we signed....
LB: I left François-Marie how much? What share?
J-MN: Sole legatee.
J-MN: (Lowers his voice) Everything.
LB: Oh, no.
J-MN: Yes you did. You told me.
LB: Who? Me?
J-MN: Yes, you told me.
LB: No, come on. That's not right. We must sort that out immediately.
7 April 2010
PdeM: How are things going with Banier?
LB: He writes to me. He's someone I like very much. He is very intelligent, very.... But he is killing me. He's not like other people.
LB: It's always the same. He becomes too demanding. Give me this, give me that....
PdeM: He can't stop himself.
11 May 2010
Mr de Maistre and Ms Bettencourt are discussing the complex fate of the island of Arros in the Seychelles. Mr de Maistre explains that she has made the island over to a Swiss foundation, ultimately controlled by Mr Banier.
LB: Wait a minute. The foundation owns the island?
PdeM: The foundation is the owner.
LB: And the foundation belongs to whom?
PdeM: Officially, to no one.
LB: And unofficially?
PdeM: To François-Marie [Banier].
PdeM: Yes. You decided that four years ago.
LB: I wanted to give him an island?
11 May 2010 (later)
François-Marie Banier, making a rare appearance himself, tells Mr de Maistre that the island has fallen into the hands of a "dishonest" lawyer in Switzerland.
PdeM: Listen, you know the island is eventually going to belong to you.
F-MB: Yes, but he [the lawyer] doesn't give a fuck. I'll tell you, they'll never give it back because these people are very dishonest.
(Then Mr Banier has a bright idea.)
F-MB: Wait a moment. Do you have anything against ... Liliane buying [her own island] back again?
The curtain falls (for now).
Epilogue: Judge Isabelle Prévost-Desprez, the president of the court hearing the Banier case, has decided to investigate the tapes. The state prosecutor, Philippe Courroye, alleged to be close to Mr Sarkozy, has appealed, apparently fearing yet more damaging revelations ...