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How to Spend a Billion Dollars
‘There was a language I created with her that was expressed through this money that she wanted to give me,’ Banier explained. Tobias Grey reviews ‘The Bettencourt Affair’ by Tom Sancton.
THE BETTENCOURT AFFAIR
By Tom Sancton: Dutton, 396 pages, $28
|François-Marie Banier and Liliane Bettencourt in 1992. SYGMA/GETTY IMAGES|
By Tobias Grey. Updated Aug. 24, 2017 7:29 p.m. ET
The affair involved a prominent French family at war with itself. It featured collusion between private business interests and powerful politicians. Two people connected with the affair committed suicide; several reputations were ruined. As Tom Sancton, former Paris bureau chief for Time magazine, described the saga, it was “Dallas, Downton Abbey and House of Cards rolled into one.” In the case of “The Bettencourt Affair”—Mr. Sancton’s chronicle of the nearly decade- long legal drama surrounding the family behind the L’Oréal empire— the hype is justified. The story centers on how an aging and ailing Liliane Bettencourt, the cosmetics-company heiress, gifted a billion dollars’ worth of artwork, real estate, cash, and life-insurance policies to portrait photographer François-Marie Banier. The matter came to public attention when Ms. Bettencourt’s daughter filed suit against Mr. Banier for allegedly swindling her enfeebled mother out of a fortune. Over the years that followed, Mr. Sancton covered the episode’s many twists and turns closely for Vanity Fair magazine, and the book that has emerged from his reporting on the case is surely the definitive account.
One of the book’s recurring questions is what moved Ms. Bettencourt —according to Forbes, the world’s richest woman, worth nearly $40 billion—to such generosity toward the eccentric Mr. Banier. Their relationship was not sexual: Mr. Banier is gay. According to Mr. Sancton, however, the bond between the friends was nonetheless deep. An only child, hearing-impaired, distant from her only daughter, and locked in a marriage drained of passion, Ms. Bettencourt felt she led a life starved of affection, excitement and beauty. She also lacked the sort of soulful connection she had enjoyed with her beloved father, Eugène Schueller—the ambitious son of a baker who founded L’Oréal in 1909 and built an immense fortune from scratch.
In 1987, Mr. Banier—who has a history of befriending older women— first began cultivating his friendship with Liliane and her husband, politician André Bettencourt. “She gave me the possibility of doing things I could never have done without her,” Mr. Banier has said. “There was a language I created with her that was expressed through this money that she wanted to give me.” Mr. Banier’s “crazy” streak reminded Ms. Bettencourt of her father; she was also, Mr. Sancton reports, flattered by Mr. Banier’s attentions, “and delighted to be introduced into his glittering world of artistic and cultural connections.” Ms. Bettencourt and Mr. Banier’s platonic love affair continued unabated for some 25 years. Many have wondered why the heiress’s husband never intervened. But the couple’s lavish lifestyle, as well as his own political career, were financed by his wife’s vast wealth, and he maintained it was her right to do whatever she pleased with her own money.
Things finally came to a head in November 2007, not long after André Bettencourt’s death, when a family employee told the Bettencourts’ daughter, Françoise Meyers, that she had overheard Mr. Banier trying to persuade Ms. Bettencourt to legally adopt him as a son. A month later, Françoise filed a criminal complaint against Mr. Banier for abus de faiblesse (abuse of weakness) of her mother. The accusations and evidence surfaced (and re-surfaced) during the court drama that followed provide some of the most explosive details in Mr. Sancton’s reporting. At many points, these revelations implicate French government officials, widening the scandal’s reach. For example, Mr. Bettencourt’s personal valet, Pascal Bonnefoy, made secret recordings of the Bettencourt family’s business dealings, which allegedly included illegal financing of Nicolas Sarkozy’s successful 2007 presidential campaign. The affair also dredged up Eugène Schueller’s unsavory wartime history, which included ties to the Nazis and significant involvement with the French fascist group La Cagoule. During the épuration that followed the collapse of the Vichy regime, Schueller was spared imprisonment and the loss of his company thanks in large part to the interventions of François Mitterrand, the longest-serving president of France.
While Mr. Sancton deserves credit for the depth of his investigation— he interviewed some 60 people, including lawyers, politicians, celebrities, and servants—the Bettencourt affair is treacherous territory, even for a veteran journalist. Mr. Sancton’s account is a bit too taken with idle gossip. Mr. Sancton also seems at times to have fallen under the charming spell of Mr. Banier, noting that, “despite his media image as a dandy and jet-setter, he is in fact an obsessed workaholic and a serious artist.” (Exactly when this “workaholic” found time for the daily expenditures funded by Ms. Bettencourt— which the Meyers’s lawyers assessed at roughly $30,000—is not explained.) Mr. Sancton’s account also suffers from the silence of Ms. Meyer and Ms. Bettencourt, both of whom turned down his requests for interviews. Ms. Bettencourt is now 94 and reportedly afflicted by Alzheimer’s disease, so it is likely that her last words on the subject will be those issued in January 2012. Questioned by a French judge about whether Mr. Banier abused her, she said: “Surely a bit, but I don’t care . . . . I accept the consequences of my mistakes.”
Perhaps the greatest of those mistakes was to shatter the convention whereby France’s super-rich are expected to keep a very low profile. “For certain French people, gaining money is worse than pedophilia,” says one attorney involved in the case. Liliane Bettencourt’s largesse brought this taboo topic into the open in spectacular fashion. Readers curious to see where that dangerous foray led will have to find the rest in Mr. Sancton’s riveting, if somewhat tawdry, telling.
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