The mixed fortunes of France’s beauty queen

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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Reader Question: Why did my French electricity bill increase by more than 4%?

The French government has capped electricity prices rises at four percent - but as with many French rules, there are certain exceptions.

Reader Question: Why did my French electricity bill increase by more than 4%?

Question: I read in the media that electricity prices in France are capped at four percent, but I just got a letter from EDF telling me that my bill is going up by almost 20 percent – is this a mistake?

The French government’s bouclier tarifaire (tariff shield), froze gas prices at 2021 levels and capped electricity price hikes to four percent – it remain in place until at least the end of 2022.

However, there are some customers who will see increases to their bills of more than that – here’s why: 

The regulated tariff rate

The French government involvement in price-setting doesn’t just happen during periods of energy crisis, normally regulated tariff prices are updated twice a year: usually on February 1st and August 1st.

Typically, this value is calculated by the CRE (commission de régulation de l’énergie) and it is based on several different factors, which are explained on this government website. These tariffs proposed by the CRE are then subject to approval by the ministers in charge of energy and the economy.

READ MORE: EXPLAINED: Why are French energy prices capped?

These affect the state-owned Engie (formerly Gaz de France), the mostly state-owned EDF and some local distribution companies. Around 70 percent of people in France get their electricity from EDF but other suppliers do exist in the market.

These alternative suppliers, like Direct-Énergie, Total Spring or Antargaz, are free to charge more – but don’t usually charge much above the EDF rates for obvious commercial reasons.

Basic rate

The government-set limit in price rises refers only to the basic rate (option base) for electricity.

This plan represents over 80 percent of the 32 million households connected to the electricity grid in France. So, there is a good chance you might be subscribed to this without even realising it. 

If you are on the basic tariff rate, your bill will not increase by more than four percent this year.

Other tariff options

However, other options for electricity bills do exist, including off-peak rates, green deals and fixed energy prices for a certain period.

Typically people who sign up for these will have been paying less for their electricity in the preceding months than those on the base rate.

However, there are certain special deals that are not covered by the four percent cap, and some users will find that their deal period has come to an end, they are then shifted onto the base rate – which is likely to represent a price increase for them of more than four percent.

It’s little consolation when faced with rising bills, but you will likely have been paying significantly less than customers who have been in the base rate for the past few years.

READ MORE: French government to continue energy price freeze until at least 2023

Kilowatt price

Because most electricity price plans are bafflingly complicated, the easiest way to compare is to look at the price per kilowatt-hour.

Your electricity bill consists of a fixed part, the monthly subscription (abonnement) and the variable part, which depends on the quantity of electricity consumed (in euro per kilowatt-hour, kWh). The latter part is what is concerned by the tariff shield of four percent.

Here is an example of what that might look like:

The mid-August base rate price per kilowatt-hour is €0.1740/ kWh, so if you’re with EDF they cannot charge you more than this rate.

Other EDF plans charge significantly less than that – for example the Vert Electrique Weekend deal has been charging €0.1080/kWh on weekends and €0.1434/kWh on weekdays. 

Bill rises

With the tariff shield, the average resident customer on the base rate will see a €38 rise on their bill this year, while professional customers will see an average of €60 rise. 

Without the tariff shield, electricity prices per residential (non-business) customer would likely have increased an average of €330 a year, according to the CRE.