The indignity for someone described as Europe’s richest woman is that a French court wants to know: is she in control of her mental faculties?
Liliane Bettencourt, the heiress to the L’Oreal cosmetics fortune, has refused to undergo any medical assessment.
The 87-year-old’s daughter Francoise argues that the neurological condition her billionaire mother has been suffering from since 2002, has affected her mental stability.
At the origin of the family legal dispute are gifts Jean-Marie Banier received over a decade from 1995. The presents Liliane Bettencourt gave to the photographer, including works by Picasso and Matisse, were worth an estimated billion euros.
The friendship between the two dates back to 1969, when Banier was 22 years old. Both he and the l’Oreal heiress deny that he took advantage of her mental state to milk her fortune.
“Mme Liliane Bettencourt has behaved constantly, and over a period of years with Francois-Marie Banier, in a manner that’s been totally free, totally lucid, totally voluntary and she accepts total responsibility,” said Banier’s lawyer Hervé Temime.
Such analysis is not the view of her daughter’s lawyer Olivier Metzner, who questions Bettencourt’s health.
“She is prone not to recognise people she’s worked with for 18 years. Is that a normal state or a weakened state?” he asked.
Now an unexpected twist from within the Bettencourt household has put the trial on hold. Over the past year Liliane’s butler has been secretly recording her private conversations with her financial manager Patrice de Maistre. One segment published in the French press appears to suggest she is not totally in control.
According to Le Point the conversation went like this:
“How much did I leave Francois-Marie? What proportion?” asked Liliane.
“The sole beneficiary”, replies her manager.
“Which means?”, she asks.
Still, Liliane Bettencourt’s lawyer Georges Kiejman is unimpressed: “She says very clearly ‘what I’ve done I never regret, when I give it’s because I want to give, when I refuse it’s because I want to refuse. So I believe that on the substance of the case and on Mme Bettencourt’s supposed incapacity, these recordings add nothing,“ he said.
To add to the intrigue, the case has generated a political row in France, snaring a government minister. Eric Woerth was budget minister and his wife Florence worked for Bettencourt’s financial adviser. Suggestions that the heiress had been avoiding taxes have led critics to question the minister’s acquaintances. He and his wife deny wrongdoing.