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

By and

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.

'I had to protect myself from these people'

Bonnefoy was first employed by Liliane and her late husband André in 1989. Apart from a five-year break between 1993 and 1998, he served the household until his dismissal in May 2010, which he told police was the result of "witch hunt" by Banier.

"This began after the complaint filed against Monsieur Banier by Madame Françoise Meyers [Liliane's daughter] and the statements1 given to police by Madame Bettencourt's employees," he said.

I was personally never questioned by police but, very soon, Monsieur Banier led Madame Bettencourt to believe that I had testified against her and against him. He never told me this to my face, but I learned about it upon a return from d'Arros2, when Madame Bettencourt displayed her discontent with me and ignored me. I no longer existed. I learned from other employees of Madame that I was supposed to have testified before the judicial police."

 

M. Owen-Jones © Reuters M. Owen-Jones © Reuters

 

Bonnefoy said he decided to request a meeting to discuss the matter with his mistress, who was referred to as "Madame" by all the household staff. "From memory, this discussion was held around February 2009, in the presence of her nurse. I clearly understood that, whatever my explanations, something was broken. She was tired and I did not insist any further in defending myself."

Bonnefoy told police how, the following day, L'Oréal chairman Sir Lyndsay Owen-Jones also became involved, during a visit by the British businessman to the Bettencourt mansion. "Monsieur Owen-Jones, very uncomfortable, asked me, in the presence of Madame Bettencourt, to confirm to him whether I had or not testified against Madame. I confirmed to him what I had told Madame Bettencourt. The discussion lasted a minute and I left the room."

That was when Bonnefoy says he decided to take action before what he foresaw would be imminent reprisals.

"I felt very wounded and I told myself that I had to protect myself from these people, and I decided, as a means of defence to make some audio recordings," Bonnefoy told the police. "Over a period of one year, from May 2009 to May 2010, I regularly placed a digital Dictaphone behind Madame Bettencourt's armchair, in some felt, the armchair situated in Madame Bettencourt's office where she held her appointments with her wealth manager [Patrice de Maistre] and other business meetings. I chose the meetings with Monsieur de Maistre, [Monsieur] Normand [Bettencourt's notary, or solicitor], [Monsieur] Goguel [Bettencourt's fiscal affairs lawer]. I later had these recordings cut [on a disk] by Monsieur Philippe Dunand."

Dunand, a computer engineer, is the partner of Claire Thibout, a former accountant to Liliane Bettencourt.3

 

M. de Maistre © Reuters M. de Maistre © Reuters

 

"I did that so that no-one could say the recordings had been interfered with," Bonnefoy told police. "I [wish to] also make clear that I had the entire contents cut. When the first Dictaphone was full-up, I took a second."

After his contract was ended on May 31st, the butler had already collected about 20 hours of recordings. "I gave it a lot of thought and after listening to the recordings, as they happened, and given the climate in this household, I contacted Madame Meyers [Liliane's daughter Françoise] to give her all of the CD-Roms. That's what I did during an appointment at her home, on May 17th or 18th."

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1: Statements given during the initial preliminary enquiries into Françoise Bettencourt-Meyers complaint against François Marie Banier.

2: The Seychelles island d'Arros was bought by André and Liliane Bettencourt in 1999. It is at the centre of the tax fraud allegations arising from the conversations secretly-recorded by Bonnefoy, notably because it is apparently owned and managed by a mysterious Liechtenstein-based foundation. At the time of publication, the precise ownership structure remains a mystery.

3: Claire Thibout, who was employed as an accountant for Liliane Bettencourt over a period of 13 years, has also testified against the billionaire's entourage, and notably alleged - firstly in an interview with Mediapart - that the Bettencourt household funded French politicians with significant cash donations. In particular, she has alleged that she was asked to prepare a cash sum of 150,000 euros destined for President Nicolas Sarkozy's former campaign fund manager, now labour minister, Eric Woerth.

'She called for her chauffeur Jean, who had died five years earlier'

L. Bettencourt © DR L. Bettencourt © DR

 

Bonnefoy insisted he acted alone in making the recordings: "As I have already told other police officers1, I acted upon my own initiative. I alone decided to make these recordings, without anybody knowing about it. And it is therefore in full conscience that I decided to pass them on to Madame Meyers. And I then had no idea what she would do with them and she said nothing to me about this subject."

Bonnefoy was then questioned at length about Liliane Bettencourt's health, a subject that is central to her daughter's complaint against François-Marie Banier for 'Abuse of weakness'.

"I saw that her state of health deteriorated very clearly since the death of Monsieur Bettencourt2," Bonnefoy said in his statement. "Very plainly, she had let go of lots of things."

He recalled an incident on Christmas Eve 2006, during a holiday on the Seychelles island d'Arros, when Liliane Bettencourt collapsed in the chapel she and her husband had built on the island. "She got up off the bench and suffered an important faintness in which she lost consciousness."

Bonnefoy said there had been "a large number of incidents involving Madame's memory loss, such as not recognising her staff members or her guests". The former butler revealed more dramatic moments. "She asked me to call the chauffeur, Jean, to take home the countess of Gramont, and I had to delicately explain to her that Jean had died more than five years earlier. On several occasions at the end of the evening in Formentor3 she asked to be taken home to Neuilly, although we were in the Balearic Islands."

He spoke of "extravagant scenes" he had witnessed. "She systematically asked for fish dishes for dinner, [and] took a piece of fish that she would cut up in the bowl of her dog Thomas, who ate at her feet, always using her own cutlery to cut the bits in the bowl, and continued afterwards to use the [same] cutlery for herself. That did not in any way correspond with the discipline and rigour of the Bettencourt household and it would never have happened during Monsieur Bettencourt's time."

"I even personally made sure that this scene never happened before lunch guests, like for example Monsieur de Carolis, who was at the time president of France Télévisions4. I discreetly prevented the dogs from being present in the dining room."

Bonnefoyspoke of other incidents illustrative of Liliane Bettencourt's "disorientation", including one when she wanted "to take the car back whereas she was already home".

He added to his statement: "Taking into account everything I have just told you, I add that I am sad to see Madame's state of health decline and am sickened that anyone could abuse her frailty."

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1: Pascal Bonnefoy was first questioned in June by police investigating the circumstances in which the tapes were secretly recorded, and whether any criminal behaviour was involved.

2: André Bettencourt, a former minister, MP and businessman, died on November 19th, 2007.

 

'I heard Banier call Madame a bitch'

Police then questioned him about the personality and behaviour of François-Marie Banier, the principal subject of their enquiries.

Bonnefoy said that a progressive deterioration in his relations with Banier had culminated in a clash between the two men during a stay in Formentor1. "He asked me if I had something against him. I was frank, I reproached him for his attitude towards Madame Bettencourt when he called her 'a bitch' on the telephone. He answered me 'Don't you say bitch to your wife?' and I told him 'But Madame is not your wife' and I asked him if he knew all the harm he was causing to Madame to insult her in front of her personnel. I indeed heard, while working on the upper floors, close to Madame, telephone conversations in which I very distinctly heard Monsieur Banier use that term with which to insult Madame Bettencourt."

"I remember a scene at the table where he violently pinched Madame," Bonnefoy added. "Madame Bettencourt pushed him off but he continued and Monsieur Bettencourt, who was then in good health, had to intervene to request him to stop and to stay in his place."

 

M. Banier © Reuters M. Banier © Reuters

 

"After that, Monsieur Banier understood how far he could go, which was very far."

Concerning the relations between Liliane Bettencourt and her daughter, Bonnefoy told police: "Over the years, Monsieur Banier insisted upon Madame Bettencourt in his denigration of her daughter. He kept chipping away. He used vulgar words when talking about her, like 'bitch', and repeatedly told her that Madame Meyers [Liliane's daughter] wanted no good for her and that she wanted to place her under wardship."

Bonnefoy said Banier "was arrogant and his behaviour was clearly contrary to the spirit of the Bettencourt house. As an illustration, he had the regular habit, on arriving at the principle house in Neuilly, after parking his Solex2, of going off to urinate over the plants in the shelter [of the entrance area]."

 

L'île d'Arros © Google Earth L'île d'Arros © Google Earth

 

Bonnefoy said that following the death of André Bettencourt, in November 2007, Banier "took yet more of a place in the life of Madame Bettencourt."

"Already, at the end of [his] life, Monsieur Bettencourt no longer had the strength to fight. So, after his death, Monsieur Banier showed no restraint. I have the conviction that he destroyed a family while abusing Madame's weakness to capture her money and titles. He [forced out] Madame's personnel, she literally drinks his words."

At the end of his statement, Bonnefoy declared: "Madame Meyers deeply loves her mother, just as she deeply loved her father, and she wishes to protect her from her predators and herself. I do indeed sincerely believe that Madame Bettencourt is no longer in a state [in which she is] capable of protecting herself, and that her so-called protectors, instead of protecting her, guide her towards grave procedures3. What I find the hardest thing is to see this family destroyed, whereas they were always in perfect harmony [...…]"

"I want to say that I am sickened and revolted that people of a mature age, these principally being Monsieur Banier and Monsieur de Maistre, knowingly, hide behind a tired and fragile woman and do not have the courage to accept responsibility for their actions."

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1: Liliane Bettencourt's holiday property of Formentor, in Pollença, on the Spanish island of Mallorca (also known as Majorca).

2: A Solex is the common name of a motorised bike now obsolete in France.

 

 

English version: Graham Tearse

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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.