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The Bettencourt Affair, at the heart of a new documentary series by Netflix

The scandal surrounding the richest woman in France

The Bettencourt Affair, at the heart of a new documentary series by Netflix The scandal surrounding the richest woman in France
Liliane Bettencourt
François-Marie Banier
Pascal Bonnefoy

Netflix has long been producing captivating documentaries, especially those exploring scandals and crimes, such as Room 2806: The Accusation or Monique Olivier: Accessory to Evil. The way the streaming platform manages to delve into untold personal stories is fascinating. Recently, it aired a three-part documentary series on Liliane Bettencourt, the French heiress at the center of one of the biggest scandals of the last two decades. Born Liliane Henriette Schueller in Paris in 1922, she was the only child of Louise Madeleine Berthe and Eugène Schueller, the founder of L'Oréal, now one of the largest cosmetics companies. From a young age, the heiress showed interest in her father's business, joining as an apprentice at the age of 15, aware that the work was not arduous for a privileged girl. At 28, now Mrs. Bettencourt after marrying André Bettencourt, she became involved in her first scandal, as her husband had been a member of La Cagoule, a violent French pro-Nazi group of the 1930s, revealing similar ties of her father. André Bettencourt joined L'Oréal, becoming vice president, but resigned in 1994 following the revelation of his fascist connections. Upon her father's death in 1957, Liliane Bettencourt inherited the L'Oréal fortune, becoming the majority shareholder. Under her and François Dalle's leadership, appointed CEO, the company thrived, acquiring brands like Lancôme, Kiehl's, Maybelline, and Garnier. As business prospered, the heiress quickly became the richest woman in France, with a fortune exceeding 40 billion euros. However, with such wealth, scandals were inevitable.

The Bettencourt Affair: A Wolf in Sheep's Clothing

The Bettencourt Affair, at the heart of a new documentary series by Netflix The scandal surrounding the richest woman in France | Image 476854
Liliane Bettencourt
The Bettencourt Affair, at the heart of a new documentary series by Netflix The scandal surrounding the richest woman in France | Image 476858
Pascal Bonnefoy
The Bettencourt Affair, at the heart of a new documentary series by Netflix The scandal surrounding the richest woman in France | Image 476855
François-Marie Banier

It all began with an unlikely friendship between the heiress and a modestly born photographer more than 20 years her junior: François-Marie Banier, an expert in weaving connections, frequenting the elites. At 16, he became close to Salvador Dalí, at 19 with Marie-Laure de Noailles, one of the most influential patrons in the art world. The list goes on: Pierre Cardin, Samuel Beckett, François Mitterrand, Kate Moss, and even Johnny Depp (he is, in fact, Lily-Rose Depp's godfather). However, it was in 1987 that everything changed when he was tasked with photographing Liliane Bettencourt and Federico Fellini for the French magazine Egoiste. The intense nature of their friendship remains a mystery, but Tom Sancton, former head of the Paris bureau of Time Magazine, describes, «They got along well. He is very frank, sometimes casual, socially unpredictable. I think he destabilized her... It wasn't a physical relationship but a platonic love story.» Despite her wealth, Bettencourt was unhappy at the time, with her husband immersed in politics and her daughter distancing herself. She filled this void by giving Banier lavish gifts valued at an estimated 1.3 billion euros, including a life insurance policy worth 253 million euros, 11 precious works of art (including paintings by Picasso and Mondrian), and even a private island. The friendship continued until Bettencourt's daughter, Françoise Bettencourt Meyers, took over after her father's death, triggering complications. The youngest Bettencourt filed a criminal complaint against Banier, accusing him of exploiting weakness, meaning taking advantage of a person in poor mental or physical condition. At that time, Liliane Bettencourt was weakened by signs of Alzheimer's, preventing her from making informed financial decisions and making her vulnerable. In essence, an ideal prey for a seducer like Banier, who saw a financial opportunity in this aging heiress. This is how the drama began, spanning a decade, taking root when Bettencourt's daughter learned that Banier was attempting legal adoption, a reality the young Bettencourt could not simply ignore. After a lengthy legal process, Banier was found guilty, sentenced to two and a half years in prison, and swiftly removed from Bettencourt's will, accompanied by a fine. However, the story doesn't end there. It's hardly surprising that Netflix chose to revisit this tale, reminiscent of the American series Succession, with its captivating aspect embellished with elements of political scandal.

Revelation of a Political Scandal

@forbes Meet the world’s richest woman: Frasnçiose Bettencourt Meyers #forbesbillionaires #loreal original sound - Forbes

Like in a spy novel, the butler of the Bettencourts, Pascal Bonnefoy, makes his entrance, recorder in hand. Worried about his position, concerned about the mental state of his employer, and weary of Banier, Bonnefoy secretly starts recording conversations at the Bettencourt mansion. Initially tactical to better understand the complex relationship between the heiress and her young friend, these recordings triggered much larger scandals, reaching the highest echelons of the French government. At the time, Nicolas Sarkozy held the presidency of France, preoccupied with reforming the pension system on the brink of bankruptcy. To lead this reform, Sarkozy relied on his labor minister, Eric Woerth. Although Woerth seemed to be Sarkozy's asset to appease the French public, something more sinister was brewing regarding his ties with Liliane Bettencourt. Eric Woerth's wife, Florence Woerth, was discreetly investing millions of euros for the richest woman in France. In other words, Eric Woerth, then Minister of Budget, was the country's main tax collector, with someone managing the fortune of the country's largest taxpayer by his side. An undeniable conflict of interest. In 2010, the bomb exploded. Mediapart obtained part of the Bettencourt butler's recordings, revealing sensational information. Liliane Bettencourt held over 100 million euros in secret Swiss bank accounts, an undeclared island in the Seychelles, discussions about various tax evasion strategies, and, above all, clear ties to the Sarkozy government. In short, Mrs. Bettencourt's financial advisor, Patrice de Maistre, revealed that Mr. Woerth was well aware of the implemented tax evasion strategies. What's worse, a former accountant of Mrs. Bettencourt, Claire Thibout, claimed that several donations well exceeding legal limits had been made to Mr. Sarkozy's campaign, coming from the Bettencourt inheritance. This drama shook Sarkozy's presidency, undermined the confidence of the French public, and left an indelible stain on his image. Eventually, while the story presents Mrs. Bettencourt as a woman unaware of her wealth, the recordings could prove otherwise.

«How can we get caught?» the heiress wonders in a recording presented in the documentary series. Faced with the complexity of the story, the Netflix documentary directors made their best efforts to unravel this web. What ultimately emerges is the story of a vulnerable woman who, in making her own financial decisions, fell into the hands of an opportunist. Although mother and daughter disagreed for almost their entire lives, the younger one intervened, perhaps to protect her mother or to safeguard her own budding fortune. The documentary provides a glimpse into one of the richest families in France, demonstrating that incredible wealth is often accompanied by dramas that extend beyond the family framework. Despite its complexity, the documentary sparks debate about whether Mrs. Bettencourt was a lonely and vulnerable woman or if she had more sinister ambitions. Unfortunately, we will never know, as she passed away in 2017, leaving her fortune and assets in the hands of her daughter and grandchildren. In the end, viewers will have to form their own opinion.