Bettencourt butler bites back: 'I saw L'Oréal family destroyed'

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The so-called 'butler tapes', first revealed by Mediapart in June, hit world headlines and created the Bettencourt affair, a tale of influence peddling, tax-evasion and collusion among the high-flyers of the French political and business establishment. Now Mediapart exclusively reveals what Pascal Bonnefoy, butler to L'Oréal heiress Liliane Bettencourt, subsequently told police about the behind-the-doors scenes in the home of Europe's wealthiest woman. He testified that she was the subject of physical and verbal abuse, the prey of an inner circle of "mature men" who hide behind "a tired and fragile woman", including one who he said had the habit of urinating in her plant pots.

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His pocket-sized tape recorder sparked what has become one of the biggest political corruption scandals in France in recent decades. Revealed exclusively by Mediapart in June, the conversations secretly taped by Pascal Bonnefoy, the long-serving butler to L'Oréal heiress Liliane Bettencourt, disclosed evidence of money-laundering, tax evasion, influence-peddling at the highest levels of society and improper interference in judicial procedures.

Now Mediapart can reveal what Bonnefoy subsequently told police investigators during his formal questioning by police this summer, when he recounted extraordinary scenes played out behind the closed doors of the home of Europe's richest woman. He also gave details of why and how he mounted the 'sting' of the secret recordings.

Mme Prévost-Desprez © (dr) Mme Prévost-Desprez © (dr)

He told detectives that 88 year-old Bettencourt had been the victim of physical violence and verbal abuse. He gave detailed accounts of how and when she suffered significant mental confusion. He produced damning testimony against the celebrity photographer and socialite François-Marie Banier, who he said "destroyed" the Bettencourt family, humiliated Liliane Bettencourt by calling her "a bitch", and whose "arrogant" behaviour included urinating over plants at the Bettencourt home.

He also launched a scathing attack on Patrice de Maistre, the billionaire's wealth manager, and others in her close entourage who he said "hide behind a tired and fragile woman" while leading her astray.

"I could not accept the unacceptable, and for me it was like the scene of a car accident and not stopping to help," he said in his statement to police detectives. "I could not continue without doing anything and still be able to look at myself in the mirror. I had served Monsieur and Madame Bettencourt during so many years, and I could not let all these people around Madame carry on without reacting."

The statement was given on July 23rd, 2010, when Bonnefoy was questioned at the headquarters of the Paris police Financial Crime Squad (Brigade financière), one month after the contents of his secret tape-recordings were first revealed by Mediapart.

The transcripts of the tapes, which were handed by Bonnefoy to Liliane's daughter Françoise and then to police, principally concerned conversations between Liliane Bettencourt and her wealth manager, her tax lawyer and solicitor, and François-Marie Banier. They were made between May 2009 and May 2010, recorded on a digital Dictaphone placed behind a chair in Bettencourt's private office in her town mansion home in Neuilly-sur-Seine, just west of Paris.

Bonnefoy said he was prompted into making the recordings after he was subject to a campaign of ostracism led by Banier, who became the beneficiary in contested circumstances of gifts from Liliane Bettencourt estimated by police to amount to a value of almost one billion euros.

Banier is at the heart of the family feud that developed, via the tapes, into an affair of state; in December 2007, Liliane's daughter and only child, Françoise Bettencourt-Meyers, filed an official complaint alleging that Banier had abused her mother's mental frailty to obtain the gifts, which included cash, insurance policies and artworks handed to him over several years.

After significant procedural delays and attempts by Bettencourt's legal team to have the complaint dismissed, it is now the object of a full-blown investigation led by independent examining magistrate1 Isabelle Prévost-Desprez. It was as part of that investigation that Bonnefoy was questioned in July.

Prévost-Desprez is leading her investigation in open conflict with public prosecutor Philippe Courroye, who himself is in charge of a separate enquiry into the tape recordings. According to extracts of conversations in those recordings, Courroye, who has unsuccessfully tried to block the investigation by Prévost-Desprez, is considered by Liliane Bettencourt's entourage as sympathetic to their efforts to block her daughter's legal action against Banier.

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1: Under French law, an examining magistrate, who also has the title of judge, is independent of hierarchical (ultimately ministerial) interference in their investigations. A public prosecutor is answerable to their hierarchy, which is ultimately the justice minister. Investigations led by a magistrate or public prosecutor are delegated to specific police or gendarmerie services, and it was the Financial Crime Squad that was designated by Prévost-Desprez to interview Pascal Bonnefoy.

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The Bettencourt affair is not simply a family feud that pitches France's richest woman against her daughter. Ever since Mediapart's initial revelations of the scandal, it became an affair that engulfed labour minister, and ex-budget minister, Eric Woerth. It carries serious questions about the role of French President Nicolas Sarkozy, and has thus become an affair of state.

Mediapart has now compiled its extensive reports about the affair into one explanatory and detailed book, L'Affaire Bettencourt, un scandale d'Etat, ('The Bettencourt affair, a scandal of state'), currently available only in French, and published on October 7th, 2010 by Don Quichotte.