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The mixed fortunes of France's beauty queen

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The mixed fortunes of France's beauty queen
Liliane Bettencourt, pictured during a TV interview on July 14th, 2010. Photo: Screengrab France 3/AFP
13:29 CET+01:00
The heiress to the L'Oreal beauty products empire, she was just named the world's richest woman. But mental health woes and a feud with her daughter have tainted her twilight years. Liliane Bettencourt is our French Face of the Week.

Who’s Liliane Bettencourt?

Liliane Bettencourt is the controversial 90-year-old billionaire heiress to the L’Oreal cosmetics empire, as well as a socialite and philanthropist.

Why is she in the news?

Earlier this week Forbes magazine named her the world’s richest woman, with an estimated net worth of $30 billion (€23 billion). Bettencourt – who was at number 9 in the list – is also the oldest person in the top ten, and the richest person in Europe. Her luck has changed in the last 12 months, after a boost in L’Oréal shares pushed her into the top ten for the first time since 1999.

Tell me more.

She was born Liliane Schueller in Paris in 1922 to a mother who died young, and a father, Eugene Schueller, who had founded the l’Oréal beauty products company in 1909. When he died in 1957, Liliane became the group’s main shareholder.

In 1950 she married André Bettencourt, a highly controversial politician and businessman who was both awarded a medal of bravery for his role in the French Resistance, as well as condemned for writing virulently anti-Semitic pamphlets during the Nazi occupation.

Monsieur Bettencourt had also been a member of ‘La Cagoule’ in the 1930s, a fascist-leaning group funded by Eugene Schueller, which had planned to violently overthrow the Third Republic in 1937.

Did that cause trouble for Liliane?

Never. She was 15 years old at the time of the attempted coup, for example, but even throughout her time as the principal shareholder of L’Oréal, Bettencourt has essentially been wrapped in cotton wool by lawyers.

When she does respond to claims about her father and husband’s shady past, she does it through a spokesperson, and almost never gives interviews.

How have things been going for her lately?

Very mixed on that front. In 2011, after years of legal wrangling with her estranged daughter Francoise, Bettencourt was placed under the legal guardianship of her family. A court found that the billionaire was suffering from ‘mixed dementia’ had ‘moderately severe’ Alzheimer’s, and was unfit to manage her fortune.

Bettencourt dismissed the report, claiming her daughter was herself "a bit disturbed", and should "go and see a psychiatrist," reported French weekly Le Journal De Dimanche.

On a more positive note for the family, L'Oréal's fortune has increased significantly in the last decade, culminating in Bettencourt’s crowning moment this week when she was the highest ranked woman on the Forbes list.

What else is she known for?

Bettencourt has been a well-connected businesswoman in France for the last half-century, but her name dominated the headlines in 2010, when she was at the centre of a political scandal of the highest order.

The ‘Bettencourt Affair’, as it has become known, started when her former butler leaked tapes featuring Bettencourt and a cabinet minister allegedly organizing illegal payments to the presidential campaign of then candidate Nicolas Sarkozy, back in 2007.

Sarkozy, whose home was raided as part of the "Bettencourt" investigation has denied any wrong-doing but has been made a "witness" in the ongoing criminal investigation.

What do others say about her?

“Liliane Bettencourt is ready for nuclear war,” her lawyer Jean-René Farthouat told ‘Le Journal de Dimanche’, at the height of Bettencourt’s legal struggle with her daughter, in October 2011.

What does she have to say for herself?

One year after Bettencourt and her daughter publicly buried the hatchet in 2010, Francoise Bettencourt-Meyers appeared before a judge to request that her mother be placed under the guardianship of a court-appointed lawyer. Bettencourt gave a rare interview to French weekly ‘Le Point’, telling them, in a slow, hoarse voice:

“I’m sickened, and very unhappy, because she’s my daughter…But I will fight, because I won’t accept that I’m not telling the truth...The harder the blows, the more I will fight.”

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