|Photo courtesy Christopher S. Dickey|
The audience was knowledgable about the "affair," and asked excellent questions after sitting through my 45-minute talk and a short reading. On site book sales were handled by Shakespeare & Co., possibly the most famous bookstore in Paris. (Shakespeare's Sylvia Beach published Joyce's Ulysses when nobody else would touch it.) Library patron Leslie de Galbert, a fellow New Orleanian, hosted a reception afterward in her high-rise apartment with a breathtaking view of the Seine and the Eiffel Tower. Leslie has been a Parisienne since the 1970s, but we had a great time comparing New Orleans memories over champagne and canapés. For those who missed the occasion, I can't do anything about the champagne, but here is a transcript of my talk if anyone is curious. (Not required reading by any means, and there will be no quiz):
Most of you are probably famiar with the Bettencourt Affair. For those who are not, it’s a French scandal involving the world’s richest woman, L’Oréal heiress Liliane Bettencourt, her much younger gay protégé, François-Marie Banier, to whom she gave several hundred million euros over 20 years, and Liliane’s daughter Françoise, who in 2007 sued Banier for exploiting her elderly mother and thus launched a decade-long legal battle.
But I tried to tell a much broader story, not in 2007, but in 1870 with the Franco-Prussian war. Don’t worry, I only spent a page on that. But the story as I saw it was far more complex and richer than the legal battle. I called it “Dallas, Downton Abbey, and House of Cards rolled into one.”
In fact it is many intertwined stories that tell us a lot more about modern French history, society, business, and politics than an account of the litigation itself. It’s part corporate history; partly a story about the creation and transmission of one of the world’s biggest fortunes ; partly the saga of a remarkable family over three generations—a family marked by great achievements and haunted by dark secrets. It’s partly a Greek tragedy about a conflicted mother-daughter relationship and a family torn by jealousy and vengeance; partly a political intrigue that contributed to the downfall of a president.
Most of all, it’s a story about people. From the beginning, what attracted me to this subject was not just the enormous amount of money involved but the intriguing characters at the heart of this drama and the interplay between them. With the characters as a centerpiece, I tried to construct my narrative in a novelistic way. It’s all factual and meticulously documented, but in the telling I tried to give it a novelistic feel, with character development, dialogue, description, scene-setting, a sense of place, applying the literary devices of fiction to a work of nonfiction—a technique that Truman Capote called the “nonfiction novel” when he published IN COLD BLOOD in 1966.
So let's take a look at the main characters.There is, first of all, Eugène Schueller, the son of an Alsatian baker and a domestic servant, who became a chemist and invented the synthetic hair-dye that was the origin of L’Oréal. Schueller was a brilliant inventor and businessman, a Horatio Alger-like figure who started L’Oréal in a kitchen laboratory and built it into the world’s number one cosmetics firm.
Schueller was a workaholic who called himself the “6,000-hour man,” because he worked 16 hours a day, seven days a week. But he had a serious flaw: a penchant for fascist ideology that led him to fund one of the most notorious far-right groups of the 1930s—La Cagoule—and, during the war, led him to actively collaborate with the Nazis. In his public speeches and radio chats, he called for a revolution to rid France of Republicanism, free-masonry and Jews. He openly praised Hitler’s “dynamism” and denounced what he called “the childish concepts of liberty, equality, and even fraternity.”
Schueller’s collaboration went far beyond his rhetorical support for national socialism. He was an informant of Helmut Knochen, the notorious head of the SS security police in France, a key figure behind the deportations of Jews, and executions of thousands of resistance fighters and hostages. In one document I unearthed in the Archives Nationales, Schueller urged young Frenchmen to join the Légion des Volontaires Français, which fought on the eastern front alongside the Waffen-SS.
Collaboration was also good for Schueller’s bottom line: L’Oréal’s sales quadrupled during the war, Schueller’s personal income increased tenfold, and a paint and varnish company he controlled, Valentine, sold as much of 90% of its wartime production to the German navy.
Like many collaborators, Schueller was caught up in the net of the postwar purge, known as the épuration. He was indicted and investigated, but avoided conviction because of his money and contacts—including a General who swore that Schueller had financed the Resistance, and two young men who had belatedly joined the Resistance: future president François Mitterrand, and Schueller’s future son-in-law André Bettencourt.
Schueller’s narrow escape did not prevent him in subsequent years from welcoming a number of ex-Nazi sympathizers into the ranks of L’Oréal. Among them was a notorious killer named Jacques Corrèze, who had fought with the Waffen-SS and swore allegiance to Hitler. Hired by Schueller in 1950, Corrèze went on to head L’Oréal’s U.S. subsidiary. Another postwar recruit was Jean Filliol, who had carried out more than a hundred assassinations and helped the Waffen-SS prepare their infamous 1944 massacre of the village of Oradour-sur-Glane.
Schueller was never seriously called to task for recycling these and other war criminals, though a spectacular exposé in 1991, years after the founder’s death, created a public relations disaster for L’Oréal and the Bettencourt family.
Another central character in this saga is, of course, Schueller’s heir and only child. Born in 1922, Liliane lost her mother when she was five and grew up under the influence of her father’s domineering personality and manic work-ethic. One of her lawyers, Georges Kiejman, once told me: “You will never understand Liliane’s story unless you realize that she was the adored daughter of a father she adored.” Indeed, she was enamored of her father and lived and breathed L’Oréal business from childhood.
But she was also a lonely girl, raised by an English nanny she did not like—and who eventually married the widowed Schueller. Liliane was packed off to a Catholic boarding school run by Dominican nuns. During her school vacations, she was forced by her father to work as an apprentice at L’Oréal, gluing labels on shampoo bottles and other low-level tasks.
There was never any thought in Schueller’s mind that his daughter would one day run the company. He believed women belonged in the home, keeping house and raising families. When it came time for Liliane to marry, Schueller had a hand-picked candidate in mind: André Bettencourt, the young Vichy supporter-turned Resistance member who had vouched for him during the postwar investigation.
Bettencourt was the son of a prominent provincial family from Normandy. His devoutly Catholic father was a lawyer, and his mother’s family had some aristocratic blood. André Bettencourt was tall, handsome, elegant in manner and speech. To Schueller, the nouveau-riche son of a baker and a domestic servant, Liliane’s marriage to Bettencourt would give her the social status he lacked. And André was more than willing to marry the heiress to the L’Oréal fortune.
But Liliane long resisted André. When she was 20, she fell madly in love with the son of a Moroccan pasha; it was only after that affair broke off that she accepted to marry André on the rebound. And when they chose the ring, she said told the jeweler, “above all, not too tight.” She later told an interviewer, “I detest all the conventions of marriage.” In fact, theirs was a marriage of convenience, not of passion. André had an active private life that didn’t involve women. And Liliane also enjoyed her personal freedom. But it was Liliane who wore the pants and controlled the purse. It was her money that bought André’s handmade suits and Havana cigars and financed his political career.
He held numerous, mostly low-level, cabinet positions after the war, but without his illicit political contributions, he never would have been invited to join a government. He was in fact a mediocre man, who quit school before the baccalaureat, somehow escaped military service in spite of the mobilisation générale, and throughout his long political career, did not leave his name on a single piece of legislation or political initiative. Nor, despite his high-sounding Vice-President’s title at L’Oréal, did he play an important role at the family firm.
His one moment in the spotlight came in 1995, when Le Monde revealed that he had written anti-Semitic diatribes for a pro-German paper in 1941 and 42, before he switched sides and belatedly joined the Resistance. In disgrace, he resigned from L’Oréal and declined to run for re-election to the Senate. It was an inglorious end to an undistinguished career.
Long before that, back in the 1980s, Liliane had gone through a deep depression. All her life she had been the “daughter of” or the “wife of,” but she felt unfulfilled in her personal life, bored with her marriage and dissatisfied with her daughter Françoise, with whom she had a fraught relationship.
She occupied herself with L’Oréal meetings, social events and dinner parties, but in reality she was bored with her codified bourgeois existence and longed for something more exciting. As she told an interviewer for the magazine Egoiste in 1987, “I don’t like blandness, I like salt.” Salt came into her life in the person of François-Marie Banier, who had been assigned to photograph her on that occasion.
Banier is a character out of a Balzac novel—a Rastignac or a Lucien de Rubempré—a relentless social climber intent on conquering le tout Paris. The battered child of a Hungarian immigrant father and an ego-centric French mother, he grew up seeking in others the affection and approval that were lacking in his family. After leaving home at age 16, he struck up intimate friendships with a succession of famous people, including Salvador Dalí, Louis Aragon, Vladimir Horowitz, YSL, François Mitterrand and many others.
But he was no mere celebrity stalker. Charming, seductive, and physically beautiful in his youth, he attracted attention with his witty conversation and his precocious talents as a writer. Aragon even compared him to Stendahl and Turgeniev. The praise was certainly excessive, but Banier had in fact written three successful novels by age 25. A talented dilettante, he also took up painting and photography—which led him to that fateful photo session with Liliane Bettencourt in 1987.
Banier immediately caught her attention that day. Unlike the fawning attitude most people adopted with the heiress, Banier began bossing her around. He didn’t like her hairdo, made her change her clothes, told her where to sit, how to pose. Instead of kicking him out, Liliane fell under his spell. It was the beginning of an intense 25-year relationship. Banier swept Liliane off her feet, taking her to the theater, art galleries, auction houses, introducing her to fascinating writers, artists and actors. As she put it “Banier made me live again.”
So she repaid him the only way she knew how: with money, hundreds of millions, always couched in terms of art patronage. Banier certainly cajoled and manipulated Liliane and encouraged her largesse, but from the beginning, she made it clear that she acted willingly and knowingly to finance his art career.
Liliane’s daughter Françoise, the other main character, of course looked on all this with a jaundiced eye. Less than a month after her father died in 2007, she sued Banier for abus de faiblesse and thus launched the famous legal battle that only ended last year. Françoise claimed to be protecting her ageing mother from Banier’s exploitation, but her motives were more complex. Liliane and Françoise had a terrible relationship. Liliane was elegant, social, passionately interested in the family business; Françoise was dowdy, withdrawn, more interested in her books and piano than the glittering social life of her parents. In Liliane’s eyes, her daughter just never lived up to her expectations. “Françoise was always one lap behind me,” she told one interviewer.
It didn’t help matters when Françoise decided to marry the grandson of a rabbi who died at Auschwitz, and to raise her two sons as Jews. Some have seen this as an act of atonement for her grandfather’s anti-Semitism and wartime collaboration. But it did not sit well with her staunchly Catholic parents. When Banier came into the picture, Françoise was naturally jealous of this brash interloper who usurped her place in her mother’s affections. She called him a ghuru and a Rasputin. Though her suit officially targeted Banier, Liliane took it as a treacherous attack on her. And she never forgave Françoise.
Those are the main protagonists, but there are dozens of secondary figures who are no less intriguing. In fact, Charles Dickens could not have invented a more interesting set of characters or a more convoluted plot. Among them was Olivier Metzner, the legendary criminal lawyer who filed the initial suit but wound up committing suicide before it was over; then there was Pascal Bonnefoy, the handsome butler who secretly recorded Liliane’s conversations with her advisers and broke the case wide open; and Claire Thibout, the accountant, who initially blew the whistle on Banier and wound up being investigated for false testimony; and let's not forget Patrice de Maistre, the smarmy financial adviser who sweet-talked Liliane out of € 12 million and famously begged her to buy him “the boat of his dreams.”
The scandal spilled over into the political arena when Eric Woerth, President Sarkozy’s cabinet minister and campaign treasurer was indicted for collecting illegal donations from the Bettencourts—not to mention conflicts of interest involving a Legion d’Honneur decoration and a cushy job for his wife.
Then there is Sarkozy himself, an endlessly fascinating character for his frenetic energy, ruthless ambition, and ethical lapses that embroiled him in a number of scandals. Prominent among them was the Bettencourt Affair. Early on, Sarkozy offered to mediate between mother and daughter. Then he allegedly urged the prosecutor Philippe Courroy, a personal friend, to quash the case. Finally, Sarkozy found himself under investigation for allegedly soliciting illegal campaign contributions from the Bettencourts.
At the time, the affair did not bring down the president, but it was one of the scandals that contributed to his re-election defeat in 2012 and scuttled his comeback attempt last year. And he’s not done with it yet: in October, the Paris prosecutor ordered him to stand trial in the so-called wiretap affair, involving his attempts to obtain protected judicial information on the Bettencourt investigation.
So those are some of the characters that give a novelistic flavor to this story. I’m not going to walk you through all the twists and turns of the 10-year legal battle—for that you have to read the book. But most of you probably know that outcome: at the appeal trial last year, Banier was convicted of abus de faiblesse and sentenced to four years in prison—but the sentence was entirely suspended, so no jail time. He was fined €375,000 euros—a pittance for him—but the €158 million in damages assessed at the original trial was rescinded. So Banier got off with a relative wrist tap. But at age 70, he is in many ways a broken man. He is a convicted felon, his reputation tarnished, his life tormented by the 10-year legal battle.
Liliane’s last decade was also poisoned by the affair. Lost in the fog of Alzheimers, she finished her days under the guardianship of her daughter—exactly the fate she always dreaded.
The big winner was Françoise. She not only won her suit against Banier, she also inherited her mother’s 33% share of L’Oréal, worth more than $45 billion at last count. And she recently got our from under a legal cloud of her own. For the past year, Françoise was under formal investigation for allegedly bribing her star witness. But in August the Paris prosecutor called for dropping the charges pending final judicial approval. So for all intents and purposes, the legal phase of the Bettencourt Affair is over.
A lot of people have asked me how I first got interested in this subject and chose to do a book on it. Actually the subject chose me in a way. I was in France during the summer of 2010, at a time when the Bettencourt Affair exploded into the headlines. The butler’s tapes had just been leaked and the media were talking about Sarkozy’s involvement and calling it a French Watergate. I emailed Graydon Carter at VF and told him it would make a great piece. He said, “You’re right. Why don’t you do it?” I hadn’t intended to write it myself, but I said okay. In for a penny out for a pound. The piece came out in October 2010.
Two months later, Françoise and Banier signed an agreement that supposedly put an end to the suit. But the pact unraveled and the investigation continued. When it finally went to trial in 2015, my literary agent read a piece about the affair in the NYT and thought it would make a great book for the US market. She called me and suggested I put together a proposal. Well I wasn’t at all sure it would appeal to US readers, but I said, Okay, why not. Again, in for a penny, out for a pound. My agent’s instincts were right: she eventually had six US publishers bidding on the book. We signed with Dutton in May 2015. I delivered the manuscript eighteen months later, and the rest is history as they say.
There’s lots more to say about this multifaceted story, but I’d like to stop here to read a short section from the book. It’s from a chapter called “The Christmas Visitor," describing a dramatic confrontation between one of Liliane's financial advisers and François-Marie Banier...