Heir to the French L’Oréal cosmetics empire who was the world’s richest woman
Liliane Bettencourt in the 1970s. For the last decades of her life, she was at the centre of economic, political and family scandals. Photograph: Roger-Viollet/Rex/Shutterstock
Liliane Bettencourt’s only hands-on encounter with the business that made her wealthy from childhood to old age was her flirtation, aged 15, with an apprenticeship in the lab of her father, the creator and head of the L’Oréal cosmetics company. It caught Papa’s attention, and amused her briefly, to toy with bottling shampoo, but the moment soon passed. She had no need to work as she eventually inherited her father’s not-always-well-gotten fortune. He made it, she spent it, L’Oréal replenished it, and when she died, aged 94, she was the world’s richest woman, with $39.5bn. (On paper only – she no longer controlled a single cent, or her many daily medications.)
For the last decades of her life, she was at the centre of economic, political and family scandals, and of huge interest in, and to, France, where L’Oréal had grown from an experiment in safe chemical hair colouring to the world’s biggest cosmetics conglomerate, owning famous firms across cultures, complexions and hair types. Every leak in l’affaire Bettencourt revealed so much more than Madame’s imperious behaviour.
There had always been much to conceal behind her many houses and yachts, art collection, couture and jewels. Papa was Eugène Schueller, a chemist who was in on the origins of the new beauty market, from overt makeup to the craze for tanning (he formulated Ambre Solaire in 1935), and went on into film stock, varnish and paint. His wife, Louise (nee Doncieux), had died when their daughter was only five years old. Lilianne was born and brought up in Paris, tutored at home, cared for by servants and accompanied her father to offices and factories, even business lunches.
So she knew, though she did not admit it to others and perhaps not to herself, about her father’s far right ideas on politics and economics. Schueller wrote articles and books, and spoke on the radio against socialism, republicanism, even democracy, preferring dictatorship. He gave money and office space to the leader of a French fascist terrorist group, La Cagoule (the Hood); after the German invasion, the group went public as a collaborationist political party, and Schueller hoped to be economic minister.
However, by 1941, he was making each-way bets: L’Oréal’s HQ in Germany was a confiscated Jewish property, yet he secretly donated money to the resistance and General Charles de Gaulle in Britain, and sheltered Jewish employees. His daughter claimed Schueller was a “pathological optimist who hadn’t the first idea about politics”, and after the war, he was acquitted of collaboration after a famous resistant intervened in Schueller’s favour, although it turned out the resistant was obliging the politicians François Mitterrand (briefly a L’Oréal employee) and André Bettencourt.
Liliane may have known Bettencourt’s secret: that before he joined the resistance late in the conflict, he had been a Cagouliste who wrote antisemitic propaganda in a Nazi-sponsored paper, La Terre Française. Postwar, he was feted as a hero, and she married him in 1950. He was in the cabinets of De Gaulle and Georges Pompidou, and President Mitterrand thought he might be prime minister in 1986. He joined L’Oréal, too, but resigned as deputy chairman in 1994 when his sins were exposed.
Liliane had inherited control of L’Oréal and her father’s fortune on his death in 1957, and the Bettencourts were donors to conservative politicians over decades, and hosts to well-connected Paris. In 1953, they had a daughter, Françoise, who later married Jean-Pierre Meyers and converted to Judaism.
Mother and daughter established the Bettencourt Schueller Foundation in 1987, annually dispensing millions to the arts, medical research and education; the French suspected this to be moral rehabilitation for L’Oréal as the shames were uncovered.
The greatest scandal broke after André’s death in 2007. Françoise, destined to inherit all, filed a criminal complaint against a photographer, François-Marie Banier, claiming he had fraudulently charmed well over a billion dollars in art, annuities, cash plus a small island in the Seychelles, out of her doting mother, who intended to adopt him. Bettencourt agreed she had given the gifts, Banier admitted receiving them (he did not want the island because of its mosquitoes and sharks), but claimed this was not exploitation: their long platonic relationship had cheered Bettencourt’s stuffy life.
Banier denied a legal charge of manipulating Bettencourt, but in court her household retinue described his dominance over the frail woman, right down to choosing her lipstick. In 2015, Banier was found guilty of abuse and money laundering, sentenced to three years in prison and ordered to pay millions in damages. Eight other defendants, including former wealth managers for Bettencourt, were found guilty of related abuses and fined or jailed.
Between first accusation and sentences came years of tattle, vindicating those who had always suspected corruption behind Bettencourt’s social brilliance and personal reticence. Her butler had made secret tapes, released in 2010, of his employer talking with Banier and financial advisers about tax evasion and millions cached in a secret Swiss account; it was audible that she was unclear about events. Mother and daughter angrily arbitrated a settlement for Meyers to control the family holding company; then, in 2011, after a medical report found Bettencourt was in denial about her dementia, her daughter was given control of her assets, including 30% of L’Oréal’s voting shares, and her grandson Jean-Victor was made guardian of her health and personal affairs.
Meanwhile, a former family accountant formally complained that Bettencourt had donated more than 3,000 times the legally permitted contribution to Nicolas Sarkozy’s 2007 presidential campaign, some of it cash stashed in envelopes, most via Éric Woerth, the labour minister. Woerth resigned, and was later cleared of charges of exploiting Bettencourt; Sarkozy denied he had solicited or accepted donations, and investigations were dropped when he lost the presidency in 2012.
- Liliane Henriette Charlotte Bettencourt, heir and businesswoman, born 21 October 1922; died 20 September 2017