Liliane Bettencourt, the French heiress to the L’Oréal cosmetics fortune and a family legacy of fascist associations, whose final years were vexed by allegations that she had fallen under the sway of a younger man and given him $1.4 billion, died on Wednesday at her home in the Paris suburb Neuilly-sur-Seine. She was 94.
Her death was confirmed by Jean-Paul Agon, chairman and chief executive of the L’Oréal Group, on the company’s website.
L’affaire Bettencourt had captivated France since 2007, when a daughter’s lawsuit charged that Mrs. Bettencourt, ranked as the richest woman in the world, had been bamboozled by a society photographer 25 years her junior for cash, annuities, fine art and, it seemed, an island in the Seychelles. The complaint challenged her mother’s competency and led to criminal charges against the man, who was portrayed as a gigolo.
Accused of “abus de faiblesse,” or exploiting the old woman’s frailty, the photographer, François-Marie Banier, was bombarded at a trial in early 2015 by the testimony of maids, butlers, doctors and others who called him the dominating manipulator of an overmedicated, disoriented woman. They said he chose Mrs. Bettencourt’s lipstick and clothing, monitored her appointments and once suggested that she adopt him.
Deaf and afflicted with dementia, Mrs. Bettencourt did not attend the trial. But her daughter and court-appointed guardian, Françoise Bettencourt-Meyers, told the court in the southwestern city of Bordeaux: “The strategy of Mr. Banier was not just to divide and conquer. It was to break and conquer. To break our family. It was programmed destruction
Mr. Banier, who faced up to three years in prison, vehemently denied the daughter’s accusations and brushed off the retainers’ criticisms with literary references to Molière and a play by Jean Genet about maids plotting against a rich employer. “These are people who take revenge for a life they don’t have,” he said.
In May 2015, the court convicted Mr. Banier of abuse and money laundering and sentenced him to three years in prison, of which six months were suspended. He was also ordered to pay 158 million euros, or $173 million, in damages and a fine equivalent to about $418,000.
The Butler Was Taping
In 2010, the family soap opera also exploded into a government scandal after tape recordings secretly made by the dowager’s butler, and accusations by a former family accountant, suggested that Mrs. Bettencourt had kept $98 million in secret Swiss bank accounts, evaded taxes, given envelopes of cash to cabinet ministers and made illegal campaign contributions to Nicolas Sarkozy shortly before his election to the French presidency in 2007.
Mr. Sarkozy denied any improprieties, but he lost the presidency to the Socialist François Hollande in 2012, and with it his official immunity from prosecution. He was placed under formal investigation, suspected of having taken advantage of Mrs. Bettencourt’s mental frailty to obtain campaign funds. However, French magistrates dropped the inquiry in 2013.