The Bettencourt Affair: The World's Richest Woman and the Scandal That Rocked Paris

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A week has gone by since finishing The Bettencourt Affair, and it’s still rattling around upstairs in my brain. There are many reasons why, with perhaps the biggest reason being the unsettling news of how deep into Nazi collaboration members of the Schueller and Bettencourt families were – Eugène Paul Louis Schueller, the founder of L’Oreal and his collaboration and participation in the Nazi war machine saw his profits quadruple between the years 1940-1944. Schueller’s only daughter, heir to the (massive) L’oreal fortune, is married to Andre Bettencourt – another Nazi sympathizer, publisher of numerous anti-semitic writings. L’Oreal owns Lancome, The Body Shop and Maybelline as well as of course, L’Oreal. That kept me awake, I won’t lie, and my recent outing to Shoppers Drug Mart had me giving side eyes to the wall of L’Oreal and Maybelline products. (I’ve been told that if I were to google companies that collaborated with the Nazis I would fall off my chair in horror.) Another major reason would be because in all the pages of this impeccably researched and told book, I did not read of any charitable work done by the Bettencourts or by the L’Oreal foundation/company, outside of course of their buying of politicians, funding their own political career asprirations, buying off employees to quash their scandalous behaviour, and of course the whole reason behind this Bettencourt affair and the scandal that rocked Paris – Liliane Bettencourt’s funding of ~One Billion Euros worth of gifts to Francois-Marie Banier.

The Bettencourt Affair was a fascinating read and tells of what happens when some people just have far too much money to know what good to do with it. Oh my word they have so much money. (L’Oreal generates 24 billion euros annually. Annually. Liliane Bettencourt is heir to L’Oreal’s 36-billion-dollar fortune.) Liliane Bettencourt, a lonely woman (rumoured to have married a gay man) fell in love with a another lonely gay man and funnelled all kinds of money to him in the way of gifts, real estate, villas, apartments, cars, artwork, insurance policies (some valued at 650 million euros!). When the only daughter of Liliane, Francoise Meyers, heard about a scheme they were cooking up where Liliane would adopt Francois-Marie Banier, Francoise called bullsh*t and initiated a law suit against Banier, claiming he was taking advantage of her mother. This suit would cause an avalanche-like rippling down effect that would include French presidents. She was determined the taps would be shut off to Banier. However, at no time were any of these gifts and policies asked to be returned.  Around this time, it was becoming apparent Liliane was beginning to lose herself to Alzheimers, although she remained insistent that she wanted to give this money to Banier. She saw no harm in it.  Therefore, was Francoise’s mission to control her mother allowing her to sell out L’Oreal to Nestle? Or was this just plain jealousy of Banier – someone her mother loved more than her -, or was she sincerely concerned he was taking advantage of her? This opened the doors to a major scandal involving French presidents and revealed just how many people were actually taking advantage of Liliane Bettencourt.

Tom Sancton has written an impeccably researched book, that reads as smooth as a fiction novel. He provides pages upon pages documenting every single moment written about and turned this information (court transcripts, recordings, etc.) into this stunning family saga, beginning with Schueller’s modest beginnings (and political involvments), building the family tree and the intrigue and dalliances within that family. However, as the story continues, the repetition about Banier and his exploitive behaviour, Francoise’s jealousy and Liliane’s mental state became redundant. But overall a very interesting look into the lives of people with far too much money to know what good to do with it, (Oh the amount of good this money could do in the world….instead of buying more villas, creating infighting, jewellery requiring a bank vault that is the size of most people’s homes…) and the quality of Sancton’s writing will have me seeking out more written by him.

Thanks to Dutton / Penguin Random House for sending The Bettencourt Affair for our reading pleasure. It’s one I will likely not forget about anytime soon! I also remain hesitant, oh so hesitant, about purchasing L’Oreal and its products and those from its affiliated companies. :-(