“The Bettencourt Affair: The World’s Richest Woman and the Scandal That Rocked Paris” by Tom Sancton— “The French Watergate”

Sancton, Tom. “The Bettencourt Affair: The World’s Richest Woman and the Scandal That Rocked Paris”, Dutton, 2017.

“The French Watergate”

Amos Lassen

Have I got a book for you!! Tom Sancton’s “The Bettencourt Affair” is a perfect summer read (and a great book for any season). It has something for everyone— political intrigue, family drama, upstairs-downstairs rivalries, and scandals of the rich and famous. I suppose I was living out of the country when what was become known as “The French Watergate” took place since I do not remember ever hearing that term before.

Liliane Bettencourt, the heiress to the L’Oreal fortune, met François-Marie Banier, a gay artist and photographer who was once, when he was younger considered to be a protégé of Salvador Dalí and the toast of Parisian society. Liliane’s estimated weatlt was some $40 billion dollars. During the following twenty years Liliane gave him millions of dollars in gifts, cash, and insurance policies. No one understood the terms of their relationship including Liliane’s daughter who actually suspected something was not right and actually filed a lawsuit against him.

But of course there are two sides to every story and Banier’s is quite different than the one you just read. The whole affair began as something within the family but soon became an international affair and a major scandal which allowed the world to see the corporate and shadowy history of L’Oréal and at the same time learn some secrets about the Second World War that were supposedly buried. No one was free of what this affair did to France including the president of the country and the servants who labored downstairs. I could say much more but that would include spoilers and this is too exciting of a read for me to mess it up for other readers.

The author’s research is amazing and the scandal keeps us turning pages as quickly as possible. Tom Sancton lived in Paris for nearly a decade closely following this case and interviewed sixty people closely involved, including Banier, the man at the center of it all. Today Liliane is 94 and dealing with Alzheimer’s. She is cut off from the world she once knew. She is totally under the control of her daughter Francoise and a legal guardian.

Banier reaped financial benefits from his friendship with Liliane for about 25 years. His friends back then went from those in politics to those in the arts and while his critics say that he was nothing more than a gigolo, his personality is far too complicated for just one word to describe him. Banier received no prison time and has had no contact with Liliane since 2010. He was convicted of abusing Liliane and the case took ten years of his life, cost him millions and damaged his reputation. However, at 70 years old, he continues to work and live comfortably even though he is a wounded and broken man.

Francoise is under investigation for allegedly bribing her star witness and if she is convicted she could go to jail for three years and have a large monetary fine. The affair, so we see, continues.

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