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Apr 15, 2010
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French photographer in court over gifts from L'Oreal heiress

Apr 15, 2010

L'Oréal Paris
Liliane Bettencourt
NANTERRE, France, April 15, 2010 (AFP) - A photographer accused of taking advantage of France's richest woman, Liliane Bettencourt, by accepting her lavish gifts, appeared in court for the first time on Thursday 15 April.

Francois-Marie Banier was summoned to answer a suit filed by Bettencourt's daughter alleging that her billionaire mother, heiress to the L'Oreal cosmetics fortune, had fallen prey to the 62-year-old photographer.

Banier received gifts worth one billion euros between 2002 and 2007 from Bettencourt, now 87, according to the daughter, Francoise Bettencourt-Myers.

Among these were masterpiece paintings including works by Matisse and Mondrian worth 15 million euros (20 million dollars), several cheques and life insurance policies.

The daughter maintains that Banier took advantage of her mother's frail health, claiming she suffers from memory lapses that make her particularly vulnerable.

Both Banier and Liliane Bettencourt reject the daughter's claims and accuse her of trying to cash in on her inheritance prematurely.

At a pre-trial hearing on Thursday 15 April, Liliane Bettencourt's lawyer failed in a bid to challenge the impartiality of the court to hear the case.

Lawyer Georges Kiejman said the court had ignored requests from the prosecution to drop the case and instead set a date of July 1 to hear the lawsuit against Banier for allegedly abusing the vulnerability of Bettencourt.

Dressed in a green suit, Banier did not address the hour-long hearing in Nanterre, west of Paris, and left the courtroom without making a statement.

His lawyer Herve Temime however said that the photographer was looking forward to his day in court and was ready to face the judges.

If convicted, Banier faces up to three years in prison and a fine of 375,000 euros.

The daughter's lawyer, Olivier Metzner, remarked sardonically that "so much effort was put into making sure that this case is not heard."

"We are not suing Liliane Bettencourt," he quipped.

In an interview with Le Monde newspaper in December, Banier said Bettencourt was "a completely sane" and generous woman who had offered him gifts as a gesture of friendship.

"These were gifts that, for a long time, I refused. These gifts come from a completely sane woman," Banier said.

A previous investigation by French financial police estimated the gifts given to Bettencourt at 630 million euros, between 1997 and 2007. No charges were brought in that probe.

Bettencourt-Meyers also alleges that such is Banier's influence over her mother that staff at her mansion in a wealthy Paris suburb who testified in court have been sacked.

But her mother has insisted she is in full possession of her faculties despite her advanced age.

Bettencourt's lawyer in turn has accused Bettencourt-Meyers of trying to get her hands on her mother's 30 percent interest in the global cosmetics giant that lies behind her reported 13.4-billion-dollar fortune.by Andrea Bambino

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