BORDEAUX, France — For five weeks, a French version of “Downton Abbey” has been unfolding in a courtroom here, providing a rare glimpse into the discreet lives of the ultrarich.
The real-life drama, set in an Art Moderne mansion in Neuilly-sur-Seine, an exclusive town west of Paris, features a cast that includes long-serving chambermaids, cooks and butlers who tended to one of the world’s richest women, whom they call “Madame.” There are also high-powered lawyers, advisers and confidants accused of exploiting her fading mental state to plunder cash, artworks, life insurance and a private Seychelles island.
The woman, Liliane Bettencourt, the 92-year-old heir to the L’Oréal cosmetics fortune, lives in the secluded mansion in the shadows of memory — too frail and deaf to attend the trial.
The trial ended on Wednesday, and a panel of judges said it would announce its verdict on May 28.
In many ways, the case, known to the French as the Bettencourt affair, is the universal story of any wealthy family with an elderly relative who vacillates between independence and vulnerability. But Forbes estimated Mrs. Bettencourt’s fortune at more than $40 billion, making her the second-wealthiest woman in the world.
The prosecutors said her advanced age, the beginnings of dementia and a daily medical regimen of 56 pills, including antidepressants, also invited exploitation. And investigators contend that the schemes were so widespread that they included a political scandal involving a former finance minister seeking cash for the 2007 presidential campaign of Nicolas Sarkozy.
Some of the house staff members risked their jobs to challenge her advisers and confidants, particularly a French society photographer who gained the largest share of her fortune. At one point, investigators estimated that share to be about a billion euros, or $1.13 billion, in gifts during 20 years of friendship ending in 2010.
“Liliane wanted to do things for me, to ease my life,” testified the photographer, François-Marie Banier, 67, who is facing the highest penalty of the defendants, three years in prison. “I refused things like a mansion. But she took it so poorly. It’s really hard to cross that extraordinary woman.”
On Wednesday, Mr. Banier’s lawyers mounted his final defense, arguing that Mrs. Bettencourt had made calculated choices and challenging the evaluation that she had been showing early signs of dementia when she lavished gifts.
One lawyer, Pierre Cornut-Gentille, conceded that his client had an unusual personality, saying that he was “a crazy dog who doesn’t know how to stop, an immature child, but he is not a manipulator.”
The list also includes a lawyer, a businessman, the former manager of Mrs. Bettencourt’s private island and her onetime nurse, Alain Thurin. Mr. Thurin attempted suicide on the eve of the trial and is in a coma.
The case has had so many twists that newspapers and radio stations have created short videos explaining the “Bettencourt affair for dummies.”
Investigators say they believe the amount of money taken from Mrs. Bettencourt totals more than €1 billion from a variety of schemes. A lawyer and a businessman are accused of preying on her for a €143 million investment in an online game, Everest Poker. Her wealth manager is trying to fend off charges that he persuaded her to give him €12 million, plus campaign cash for politicians.
The affair dates back to 2007, when Mrs. Bettencourt-Meyers sued Mr. Banier, accusing him of exploiting her mother’s diminished mental health to lay claim to her money. Mrs. Bettencourt-Meyers, 61, has a front-row seat in the courtroom for a case that her lawyer described as “family combat to reclaim a mother and grandmother.”
Mrs. Bettencourt-Meyers testified that Mr. Banier drove a wedge between her and her mother, who lives a short walk away from her in Neuilly-sur-Seine and has been monitored since 2011 by a guardian appointed after a court concluded that she had dementia and “moderately severe Alzheimer’s.”
“The strategy of Mr. Banier was not just to divide and conquer,” Mrs. Bettencourt-Meyers said in somber tones. “It was to break and conquer. To break our family. It was programmed destruction.”
Much of the testimony explored a period after 2007 in which Mrs. Bettencourt’s husband, André Bettencourt, died and Mr. Banier deepened his influence, eventually exchanging more than 2,000 faxed messages with her. His lawyers argue that her notes in response demonstrate her lucidity.
Mrs. Bettencourt’s grandson Jean-Victor Meyers testified about visiting her in 2008, as the tension between mother and daughter about Mr. Banier intensified. “Your mother is attacking me because I gave a million to François-Marie,” he recalled Mrs. Bettencourt saying. Told it was actually €1 billion, she replied, “Are you sure?”
A chamber maid, Dominique Gaspard, testified about Mr. Banier’s increasing control, saying he would choose Mrs. Bettencourt’s lipstick and clothing and monitor her appointments. Listening from a bathroom, the maid said, she overheard Mr. Banier suggest that Mrs. Bettencourt adopt him, a claim he has vehemently denied. The maid, an employee of 18 years, was fired after she raised alarms.
When one of the judges questioned Mr. Banier about a €262 million life insurance policy signed over to him in a shaky signature with one “t” missing from Mrs. Bettencourt’s name, he said she had been in a terrible mood and had wanted to do it quickly.
“Who is the victim of the other?” he asked. “Before this affair, I lived well with my three apartments and a house in the country.”
When questioned about former employees who described him as a dominating manipulator, Mr. Banier brushed off the criticism with literary references to Molière and a 1947 play by Jean Genet about maids plotting against their rich employer. “These are people who take revenge for a life they don’t have,” he said.
The judicial tribunal also listened to secret recordings made by a butler who distrusted Mrs. Bettencourt’s entourage.
The final recording played in the courtroom offered cringe-inducing details of a discussion between Mr. Banier and Mrs. Bettencourt’s wealth adviser about the finances for a private island in the Seychelles that she had ceded to a shell foundation benefiting Mr. Banier. Though Mrs. Bettencourt was present during the conversation, she said virtually nothing.
Last week, the prosecutor recommended that charges be dropped against five of the 10 defendants, including the former finance minister, Éric Woerth, because of insufficient evidence. But he demanded the maximum sentence for Mr. Banier, including the prison term, a €375,000 fine — about $425,000 — and the potential seizure of some of his properties in Paris and Morocco.
In the waning days of the trial, Arnaud Dupin, Mrs. Bettencourt’s lawyer, expressed gratitude to the mansion employees. He slowly read aloud the names of those fired when Mr. Banier was still a confidant.
“For Mr. Banier, they were the petit personnel,” Mr. Dupin said. But for the sake of Mrs. Bettencourt, he said, they showed courage and were “the principal adversaries who could no longer tolerate abuse.”
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