PARIS A French judge will examine whether the elderly heiress to the L'Oreal fortune, Europe's richest woman, should be stripped of the right to manage her own affairs after showering gifts worth close to $1.5 billion on a friend.
Liliane Bettencourt, 87, says she was in full possession of her wits when she lavished cash, artworks and life insurance on photographer and socialite Francois-Marie Banier, 62, but her daughter disagrees and has taken her objections to the courts.
Lawyer Olivier Metzner, who represents the daughter, told Reuters on Wednesday that he had launched a civil procedure to try and have Bettencourt declared irresponsible and placed under the authority of a court-designated tutor.
The move is in addition to a separate criminal case in which the daughter, Francoise Bettencourt-Meyers, is pressing charges against Banier, accusing him of taking advantage of an old lady's weakness to extort staggering sums from her.
"We have already taken action against the predator. Now we are taking action to protect my client's mother, to show that she is nothing more than a victim," said Metzner.
Bettencourt and Banier have refused for months to comment publicly on the case. Bettencourt's lawyer did not return calls seeking comment.
A fixture in fashionable Paris circles for four decades, Banier has been friends with Bettencourt since the mid-1980s, though the gifts under scrutiny date back only to 2002.
A DEAR FRIEND
Bettencourt, who is not on speaking terms with her daughter, has spoken publicly about the case only once.
In an interview a year ago with the newspaper Le Journal du Dimanche, she angrily denied Banier had taken advantage of her, presenting him as a dear friend who had introduced her to interesting artistic circles.
"Life would be no fun if you only saw people from the same background as your own," she said.
"My daughter has to realize that I am a free woman."
Bettencourt also made the point that the value of her gifts to Banier, estimated at 1 billion euros by investigators, was not so great when compared with her total fortune.
She is the biggest shareholder in the cosmetics giant L'Oreal, founded by her father. Her fortune was estimated at $13.4 billion by Forbes this year, making her the richest woman in Europe and the 21st richest person in the world.
A court hearing is scheduled in the criminal case on December 11. A decision by a civil judge on whether she should be given a tutor is unlikely to be taken before then.
Banier could face up to three years in prison and 375,000 euros in fines if he is convicted.
French media have leapt on the scandal over the past year, 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 retorted in her interview that she was free to do whatever she liked with her money, and that her daughter had nothing to complain about as she will inherit the stake in L'Oreal, which represents the bulk of Bettencourt's huge wealth.
(Writing by Estelle Shirbon, editing by Paul Casciato)