© François Durand/AFP/Getty Images
July 6, 2010
The long-awaited trial of celebrity photographer François-Marie Banier, scheduled to open July 1, was postponed so that judges could examine new evidence: secret tapes recorded by the butler of L'Oréal heiress Liliane Bettencourt. Some background on France's highest-profile scandal:
The current scandale du jour will keep Gallic tongues wagging for a long, long time. At its center are Europe's wealthiest woman, her billion-euro protégé, and her daughter, who is either deeply concerned about her mother or jealous and resentful. On the periphery are the courts, which seem unable to deal with the affair. The rest of us crowd in as close as time allows, not quite sated by a press that's clearly loving this story.
Liliane Bettencourt, whose father, Eugène Schueller, founded the international cosmetics company L'Oréal, is the grande dame. Very, very grande. Forbes put her net worth at $20 billion in its 2010 ranking. All outward signs are that Madame Bettencourt is completely vital at the age of 88. Last year she was named to Vanity Fair's best-dressed hall of fame, "the highest honor," says the magazine, "that a sartorial savant can receive." Though one can presume that Bettencourt prizes the Légion d'Honneur, awarded for her philanthropy in AIDS research, at least as much. But she looks very proud indeed in the magazine's photo of her in a signature pants suit, as elegant and composed as a L'Oréal ad for the best rejuvenating face cream ever.
Her protégé is François-Marie Banier, a photographer whose work is regularly published by the New Yorker and Vanity Fair, and whose noteworthy list, in small type, of books, plays, paintings, photographs and exhibitions fills a number of screens on his website. The site doesn't list his roles in films, but there have been more than a handful, many of them with the director Eric Rohmer. Though never the star, Banier is justified in claiming impressive credits in that domain too.
But talk about impressive. That turns the conversation to the improvement in his net worth because of his friendship with Bettencourt. The precise amount, according to reports in the press citing court documents, is €993 million. Convert it to dollars and it looks like a lot, especially considering that Bettencourt also gave him the money to cover the taxes on the gifts.
The daughter is Françoise Bettencourt-Meyers, who has already received her mother's L'Oréal shares. So control of the company is not the issue nor, ultimately, is vast wealth. More than two years ago, in December 2007, Bettencourt-Meyers filed criminal charges accusing Banier of "abus de faiblesse," essentially exploiting her mother's age and presumed weakness to pillage her riches and her well being. She has also asked the court to appoint a financial guardian for her mother.
The courts can't come to grips with the case. Several dates have been set for rulings, but Bettencourt has ignored court orders to undergo a neurological examination. Without medical evidence, the judge is constrained not to rule. While the daughter's lawyers accuse Bettencourt of contempt of court, that's not a ruling the judge has so far felt inclined to issue.
One understands. The rich are very different, especially when they go to court. Among the consultations Bettencourt has held in her fight against the effort to, basically, have her declared incompetent, was with President Nicolas Sarkozy. In France, it has been written that "tout s'arrange"—everything can be worked out. A meeting with le Président de la République is an effective strategy when you're trying to get things arranged.
Mother and daughter are no longer speaking except through lawyers and investigators, with the occasional barbed remark in the rare newspaper interview. "I don't know what fly could have bitten her," Bettencourt said of her daughter.
Bettencourt-Meyers lets the judicial police speak for her. The accounting they have put together is that her mother's gifts to Banier consist of cash, life insurance policies and works of art by Picasso, Matisse, Leger, Mondrian, Man Ray, De Chirico. And then some.
The police inquiries have turned up reports from Bettencourt's servants on conversations with Banier. "Tell her to be sure to bring her checkbook," one maid said, quoting what Banier told her before a meeting he was to have with her boss. Another recounted overhearing a conversation about how Banier could legally become the son she and her husband never had. Another, a deposition by a Bettencourt accountant, related his refusal to sign an authorization for Banier to empty Bettencourt's safe of its contents.
The employees were all dismissed.
If this were Hercule Poirot's case, there might have been a couple of murders by now, not just several lost jobs. But Agatha Christie isn't the author, so the denouement seems remote.
The judicial police advanced a theory in the press that Banier had been able to enforce his emprise, his hold over Bettencourt, by lavishing her with attention to get what he wanted, or threatening her with emotional abandonment when he didn't.
The investigators also expanded their inquiry to look at Banier's relationships with other older, wealthy patrons over the years. They suspected a pattern of exploitation, particularly after nasty accusations from the grandson of Madeleine Castaing, a celebrated antiques dealer and decorating diva who died in 1992. Banier made a famous/notorious photograph of Castaing, then 92, standing on the stairs of her apartment building, without her wig and in her nightdress. The photo still sets off violent clucking over the unpardonable act of lèse-majesté, and its fame was enhanced when Banier included it in an exhibition of his work at the Pompidou Center. The picture alone constituted exploitation of her frailty, says her grandson, "and of the worst sort."
Banier on the other hand quotes Castaing as saying as she looked at the photo: "You have some nerve, you know. But it's good. It's me."
Mr. Banier is no toy boy in the usual sense—and, pushing age 63, he's not quite a spring chicken either. He was never a closeted homosexual. As a sleek youth he paired with several of Paris's high-profile creative gays—Pierre Cardin and Yves St. Laurent, for example—and hung out with jetsetters whose flamboyance or accomplishments had nothing to do with sexual orientation—Salvador Dalí, Louis Aragon, Jacqueline Picasso, Eric Rohmer, Isabelle Adjani, Johnny Depp and Pierre Bergé, among others.
There might be a provable case against him if Bettencourt joined the attack. But she doesn't. She says in effect that it's her money, that there's a lot of it, and that she can dispose of it as she wishes. And instead of displaying the slightest sign of frailty, she stalwartly refuses to undergo the court-ordered medical examination.
Banier is not the only beneficiary of Bettencourt's generosity. Besides having France's second-greatest fortune (behind Bernard Arnault, who heads the LVMH empire), she is France's greatest philanthropist. In 2009 she donated more than half a billion euros to her private Fondation Bettencourt-Schueller, to develop a medical research center in Paris that is intended to rank among the best in the world. It's the largest single donation in the history of private charity in France, where the tax base is the customary source of such largesse.
Although Banier has said that friends are deserting him as the case dithers slowly on, the ones who speak openly remain loyal and unperturbed. One of them, John Richardson, the British art historian and biographer of Picasso, probably intended a rallying defense in an interview with Doreen Carvajal of the International Herald Tribune:
"He opens up people to new experience," he said. "Their lives become enjoyable ... He moves in on people and turns up their lives. All right, if some cash rubs off on him he deserves every single cent."
Originally published in the June 2010 issue of France Today.
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