Liliane Bettencourt, the world’s richest woman and French heiress to the L’Oreal cosmetics fortune, has died at the age of 94. Bettencourt whose has a family legacy of fascist associations, died on Wednesday, September 20, at her home in the Paris suburb Neuilly-sur-Seine. A statement by her daughter Francoise Bettencourt Meyers on behalf of the family said, “Liliane Bettencourt died last night at home… My mother left peacefully.”
“In this painful moment for us, I would like to reiterate, on behalf of our family, our entire commitment and loyalty to L’Oreal and to renew my confidence in its President Jean-Paul Agon and his teams worldwide,” the statement read. Bettencourt, the cosmetics giant’s principal shareholder, was the 14th richest person in the world, according to Forbes magazine, which estimated her net worth in March at $39.5 billion (33 billion euros).
L’Oréal chairman and CEO Jean-Paul Agon expressed his condolences to the family in a statement which said: “We all had a deep admiration for Liliane Bettencourt who has always watched over L’Oréal, the company and its employees, and who was very attached to its success and development.
Bettencourt, whose old age was clouded by deafness and dementia, had her final years vexed by allegations that she had fallen under the sway of a younger man, a French celebrity photographer and given him $1.4 billion. She had been declared unfit to run her own affairs in 2011 after a medical report showing she had suffered from “mixed dementia” and “moderately severe” Alzheimer’s disease since 2006. After leaving the board of the French company in 2012, she was rarely seen in public but continued to make headlines after members of her team were charged with exploiting her as her mental health deteriorated. In 2015, a French celebrity photographer, François-Marie Banier, 25 years Bettencourt’s junior, was sentenced to two and a half years after the French heiress showered him with gifts including Picasso paintings, life insurance funds and millions of euros in cash.
Given her affliction during the scandal, Bettencourt did not attend the trial. But her daughter and court-appointed guardian, Françoise Bettencourt-Meyers alleged that Banier’s strategy was programmed destroying their family.
Labelled as a gigolo, 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. Accused of “abus de faiblesse,” or exploiting the old woman’s frailty, the photographer was bombarded at the trial 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. 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. Liliane Bettencourt was born in Paris, as the only child of Louise Madelaine Berthe and Eugene Schueller, who founded L’Oreal. Her mother died when she was just five years old, leaving her to form a close bond with her father. She joined the family business when she was just 15, before inheriting the empire when her father died in 1957.
She married a French politician Andre Bettencourt, who served in the cabinet of the French government in the 1960s and 1970s. He had been a member of La Cagoule, a violent French fascist pro-Nazi group that her father, reportedly a Nazi sympathiser, had funded and supported during the 1930s. The couple had one child, Francoise, in 1953. Liliane Bettencourt’s largess was legendary. She gave millions to education, medical research, humanitarian projects, museums and the arts. She and her husband, who died in 2007, had long supported France’s conservative governments, and her soirées were a swirl of France’s social and political beau monde.