July 15, 2009 / 8:38 PM / in 8 years

L'Oreal heiress faces court scrutiny of huge gifts

<p>France's Liliane Bettencourt leaves the Elysee Palace in Paris after a ceremony October 22, 2007.Charles Platiau</p>

PARIS (Reuters) - A French court will examine whether the elderly heiress to the L'Oreal fortune, Europe's richest woman, was in her right mind when she lavished gifts worth close to $1.4 billion on a younger male friend.

Prosecutor Philippe Courroye, who has been probing for over a year the gifts made by Liliane Bettencourt to photographer and socialite Francois-Marie Banier, told Reuters on Wednesday the case would come to trial in September.

Banier, 62, a fixture in fashionable Paris circles for four decades, has received artwork, checks, cash, life insurance and other gifts from Bettencourt since 2002. Judicial sources estimate the total value of the gifts at about 1 billion euros.

"What I have given to Francois-Marie Banier, though it's a lot, is not that much when you put it in perspective," Bettencourt told the newspaper Le Journal du Dimanche in December, in her only interview on the matter.

Bettencourt, 86, is the biggest shareholder in cosmetics giant L'Oreal, the company her father founded. Her fortune was estimated at $13.4 billion by Forbes this year, placing her in 21st position on the magazine's list of billionaires.

Courroye's investigation into the gifts stems from a complaint filed in late 2007 by her daughter, Francoise Bettencourt-Meyers, who accuses Banier of taking advantage of her mother's frailty to extort staggering sums from her.

Courroye has been trying to persuade Bettencourt to accept an independent psychiatric evaluation, but she has refused. Her daughter alleges that Banier has been bullying her at times when she was mentally and physically frail.

"Did she really make her decisions freely? I find that hard to believe," Bettencourt-Meyers told French magazine Le Point.

French media have leapt on the scandal over the past few months, publishing stories portraying Bettencourt as a lonely widow hooked on her friendship with the dashing Banier and helplessly giving in to his increasingly outrageous demands.

Bettencourt, who is not on speaking terms with her daughter, has angrily denied that version of events.

She says Banier is a dear friend whom she has known for two decades and who has introduced her to interesting artistic circles. She was in full possession of her wits every time she gave him presents, the heiress has said.

"Life would be no fun if you only saw people from the same background as your own," she said in her December interview.

"My daughter has to realize that I am a free woman."

Banier, who has refused to comment publicly on the matter, could face up to three years in prison and 375,000 euros in fines if he is convicted of taking advantage of Bettencourt.

The elderly billionaire says her daughter has nothing to complain about as she will inherit the stake in L'Oreal, which represents the bulk of Bettencourt's immense fortune.

The daughter says that if any of the money given to Banier is recovered, it will go to charitable causes.

Writing by Estelle Shirbon; Editing by Angus MacSwan

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