Photographer on Trial for Receiving Gigantic Gifts from French Heiress

Celebrity photographer and writer François-Marie Banier arrived this morning at the Nanterre courthouse outside Paris without saying a word. Looking relaxed, a smile on his face and wearing an elegant dark suit, Banier, 63, made his way through a sea of microphones and cameras to the courtroom.

Banier is accused by the daughter of billionaire Liliane Bettencourt, France's richest woman and heiress to the L'Oreal cosmetic giant, of having manipulated her mother in order to squeeze the 87-year-old woman for gifts worth nearly 1 billion euros ($1.2 billion) following two decades of close friendship. He is charged with abusing a frail person and is facing a possible three-year prison term, a fine, as well as being ordered to give back the gifts.

Bettencourt is ranked 17th on Forbes magazine's 2009 list of the richest people worldwide, with a net worth of $20 billion.

Banier, who has befriended stars from artist Salvador Dali to Princess Caroline of Monaco to actor Johnny Depp, has confirmed he received the gifts in cash, life insurance and paintings by artists including Picasso, Matisse and Mondrian. But he denied he took advantage of his older friend.

"These are gifts, which I refused for a long time," Banier told Le Monde newspaper last December. "They are gifts from a woman whose mind is completely lucid," he said. "This is a sad case. This scandal is hurting a lot a brilliant and free woman."

French investigators brought to light astronomical sums the heiress gave the photographer. Investigators also showed that the gifts came after Bettencourt's different hospital stays. Following one of these stays in March 2003, Liliane Bettencourt made Banier the beneficiary of a life insurance worth 253 million euro ($315 million). In 2006, she modified a life insurance contract worth 262 million euro ($325 million) and again, made Banier the beneficiary.

During the same period, she gave Banier's friend, a 37-year-old photographer, more than 1.2 million euros. In front of investigators, the old lady affirmed her "absolute freedom" to do whatever she wanted with her money and refused any medical expertise requested by her daughter. Bettencourt's daughter, a writer, says she wants to protect her elderly mother and is not pursuing the case for money.

She is in line to receive all of her mother's shares in L'Oreal, one day giving her ownership of more than one quarter of the cosmetics giant. She says that if the court orders Banier to return the gifts, she wants the money to go to charity. Both women have not talked in years and only see each other during L'Oreal's board meetings. But in an interview published this weekend in Le Figaro, she said, "I want her to know that I never stopped loving her."

The atmosphere was highly electric at the start of the trial today. Georges Kiejman, lawyer for Liliane Bettencourt, gave a check signed by Liliane Bettencourt herself for 1 euro to her daughter's lawyer by way of damages to end the case. A few minutes later, the lawyer for Bettencourt's daughter and only child, Francoise Bettencourt-Meyers, 56, refused the check. "I already made confetti of it," Olivier Metzner said, according to French reporters inside the court.

But the case took an unexpected turn after secret recordings made by Bettencourt's butler recently surfaced in the French press. The trial was postponed indefinitely in the afternoon, after the court asked for a new investigation into the secret recordings. The 21 hours of tapes, recorded by her butler between May 2009 and May 2010 at Bettencourt's private mansion in chic Neuilly-sur-Seine outside Paris, reportedly bring to light the vulnerability of Liliane Bettencourt, as well as collateral matters involving possible tax evasion and links between Bettencourt and French labor minister Eric Woerth and his wife.

"This is not what I was hoping for, but this is what I was expecting," Georges Kiejman, lawyer for Liliane Bettencourt, told reporters outside the court after the trial was postponed. He said he's troubled that the recordings were made in the first place and that they might become evidence in the case.

"I consider that it (the trial) is nauseating and impossible," Herve Temime, Banier's lawyer, earlier told the court when asking for a postponement of the trial. Olivier Mesner, the lawyer for Francoise Bettencourt-Meyers, told reporters: "This request [to postpone the trial] is logical and legitimate. The total and most transparent truth is what matters to me. If there is a postponement, I will ask for the recordings to be transcribed and be authenticated."

The case also took a political turn after the secret recordings showed the possible involvement of French President Nicolas Sarkozy during the legal procedure that followed the complaint lodged by Bettencourt's daughter. In one of the recordings, Patrice de Maistre, Bettencourt's financial adviser, told the heiress about the discussions he had with Sarkozy's former justice adviser at the Elysee Palace. "He told me public prosecutor (Philippe) Courroye (who was handling the complaint) would announce on September 3rd (2009) that your daughter's request is inadmissible, so matter closed," Maistre told Bettencourt. Indeed, on September 3rd, the French prosecutor dropped his own investigation into the affair and dismissed the case. Bettencourt-Meyer fought back and sought a private prosecution that led Banier to court today.

The name of French minister also emerged in the recordings, embarrassing French President Sarkozy's government. Eric Woerth, the current labor minister but also former budget minister until last march, in charge of pursuing tax dodgers, is under fire after it emerged that his wife Florence worked for the company managing Bettencourt's fortune run by Patrice de Maistre.

Florence Woerth has since resigned and her husband has denied any conflict of interest and suggestions of malpractice.

Today, an opinion poll showed Sarkozy's approval rating had hit a record low of 26 percent, largely due to what some are now calling the "Bettencourtgate".

The AP contributed to this report.