Françoise Bettencourt-Meyers: the recluse who now controls L’Oréal

Françoise Bettencourt-Meyers © Getty images
Françoise Bettencourt-Meyers: the world’s richest woman

When her 94-year-old mother Liliane died last week, Françoise Bettencourt-Meyers became the world’s richest woman, taking possession of a $46.3bn fortune. It can’t have been a wholly welcome experience for the “reclusive” L’Oréal heiress. On the one hand, Liliane Bettencourt’s death “will probably be a personal relief”, Tom Sancton, author of The Bettencourt Affair, told Bloomberg. “That was a difficult relationship that she’s now, in a way, released from.”

Yet, on past form, Françoise must be squirming at the prospect of being shoved under the spotlight. As Sancton observes, this austere, bookish woman “really lives inside her own cocoon”.

Despite sitting on the board of the French cosmetics giant for more than two decades, Bettencourt-Meyers, 64, has never shown the same interest in the company as her mother, who considered L’Oréal “her lifeblood”.

She’s better known for her love of playing the piano – she likes to get in several hours a day – and for writing two books: a five-volume study of the Bible and a genealogy of the Greek gods. And unlike Liliane, who embraced “a glittering social life” before succumbing to Alzheimer’s, Françoise prefers charity work.

One reason for her seclusion, of course, is “the labyrinthine mess” known as the Bettencourt affair, which erupted a decade ago, says The New York Times. In a nutshell, following the 2007 death of her husband, the French conservative politician André Bettencourt, Liliane became infatuated with François-Marie Banier: a celebrity photographer, 25 years her junior, and former “teenage darling” of Salvador Dali.

Over time, Bettencourt “expressed her affection” by giving Banier $1bn in assets (including an island in the Seychelles) and making him the beneficiary of four separate life-insurance policies. He says he accepted “only to make her happy”.

Bettencourt-Meyers finally “cried foul when she learned that her mother planned to adopt Banier and make him an heir”. She launched a lawsuit, alleging abus de faiblesse, and sought to place her mother under legal guardianship.

The feud developed into a national scandal amid allegations that Liliane had made illegal political donations to Nicholas Sarkozy’s 2007 presidential campaign, notes the Financial Times. It was finally settled in 2011, when a court placed Bettencourt under the control of her daughter and two grandsons.

Bettencourt-Meyers takes charge of the family’s 33% L’Oréal stake amid growing speculation about its future – and that of another big shareholder, Nestlé, which holds a 23% stake, says Bloomberg. Analysts have started to float a variety of scenarios, including outright takeovers, but she “has signalled that little will change”.

Perhaps that’s just as well, says The New York Times. The intrigue” arising from the Bettencourt feud created “a publicity nightmare” for L’Oréal lasting nearly a decade. Despite that, the business has thrived: this year its market capitalisation broke through the €100bn mark for the first time.