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Great scandals often begin in passion or ambition. But how do you explain France’s l’affaire Bettencourt?
Liliane Bettencourt, one of the richest women in the world, is now locked off from the world by Alzheimer’s disease. She is heir to the L’Oreal cosmetics fortune of nearly $40 billion. Why would she have given perhaps as much as a billion dollars in cash, real estate, and art to François-Marie Banier, an artist and photographer who is a quarter of a century younger and openly gay? Was it extravagant support for a friend — or the cruel swindle of a senior citizen?
Francoise Bettencourt Meyers, Liliane’s daughter, filed a criminal case alleging the latter, sparking a scandal that fascinated France for a decade. Now, Tom Sancton — former Paris bureau chief for Time — has written a book about it, called The Bettencourt Affair.
He says Banier met Bettencourt when he came to shoot a portrait of her. “They just kind of hit it off. He’s very, how shall I say, up-front, sometimes flippant, he’s socially unpredictable, let’s say. I think he kind of destabilized her,” by ordering her to change her clothes and her poses. “She was used to being kowtowed to, and this was a breath of fresh air,”…