Friday, December 10, 2010

Guardian: Bettencourt feud ends but battle rumbles on for Sarkozy

Bettencourt feud ends but battle rumbles on for Sarkozy: L'Oréal heiress and daughter settle court fight, but French elite still on edge after saga exposes gulf with rest of France
by Angelique Chrisafis

The cast list and plot twists were almost too bizarre to be true: an octogenarian billionaire; an eccentric dandy who peed in her flowerbeds and took gifts worth almost a billion euros; politicians who came to dinner and left with envelopes of cash; and a disgruntled butler who hid a tape-recorder in the drawing room.

The family feud that has torn apart one of France's richest dynasties officially ended this week when the Bettencourts, heirs to the L'Oréal cosmetics empire, signed a surprise truce between warring mother and daughter. But France is still reeling from what the spat has revealed about the nation.

It has renewed accusations that Nicolas Sarkozy's France is an oligarchy, where the president's coterie of extraordinarily wealthy business friends enjoy special privileges in exchange for financial support. Judges continue to investigate allegations of illegal political party funding, influence peddling, conflict of interest, tax evasion and phone-tapping of the media that have arisen from the Bettencourt case.

These inquiries into potential political corruption could prove damaging to Sarkozy and his bid for re-election in 2012. Already the case has caused outrage by exposing the widening gulf between the super-rich elite and rest of France. And the upstairs-downstairs Bettencourt story – described by several newspapers as "the nation's soap opera" – is now likely to inspire a round of films.

The drama unfolded in the Bettencourts' €30m mansion, secluded behind poplar trees in the rich Paris suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine, known as Sarkozy's fiefdom after his time as mayor. Here, Liliane Bettencourt, 88, the richest woman in France, is waited on by 17 staff, including chambermaids, cooks, hairdressers, nurses and a beautician who undertakes the daily "preparation of her skin" before her makeup is applied. Works by artists from Matisse to Braque line the walls. Meals are served on antique porcelain and the dogs eat only fresh fish.

Bettencourt, whose fortune exceeds €17bn (£14bn), was once France's poor little rich girl. Her mother died when she was five, leaving her alone with her workaholic father, Eugène Schueller, a chemist and one-time Nazi sympathiser who made a fortune as the inventor of modern hair dye and founder of L'Oréal. His daughter went on to marry the politician André Bettencourt, who died in 2007. After his death, their daughter, Françoise Bettencourt-Meyers, decided to take legal action against her mother's eccentric best friend, the photographer and artist François-Marie Banier.

Banier already had a history of friendships with rich widows when he became Bettencourt's confidant and court jester. The one-time golden boy of 1970s Paris had partied with celebrities from Salvador Dalí and Yves Saint-Laurent to Kate Moss. But some of Bettencourt's domestic staff were horrified by his style. One reported that Banier urinated in the flowerbeds and called Bettencourt a "bitch", another told how he grabbed a lipstick from her saying it was an "ugly" shade. Bettencourt said he made her laugh and she gave him almost €1bn worth of gifts, including paintings and a salary from L'Oréal. Her daughter filed a court case suing Banier for exploiting her mother's frail mental state.

Then secret recordings made by Bettencourt's butler threatened to engulf France's ruling political class. The tapes included her financial adviser instructing the confused Bettencourt to sign cheques for politicians, including Sarkozy. Eric Woerth, the budget minister and treasurer of the president's party, was described as "a friend" to whom she should give money. Woerth's wife, Florence, was employed in the team that managed Bettencourt's riches, a potential conflict of interest given that her husband was in charge of collecting tax. The tapes also revealed nearly €80m hidden in Swiss accounts, as well as the secret ownership of Arros, a private island in the Seychelles, which appeared to have been promised to Banier.

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