L'Oreal heiress faces court scrutiny of huge gifts

Wed Jul 15, 2009 4:31pm EDT
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By Thierry Leveque

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.   Continued...

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