Dec 9, 2009
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French artist defends billion-euro 'gifts' from L'Oreal heiress

Dec 9, 2009

Liliane Bettencourt - Photo : AFP
PARIS, Dec 9, 2009 (AFP) - A French photographer defended himself Wednesday 9 December against accusations of being a gold digger after he received nearly one billion euros in gifts from France's richest woman, Liliane Bettencourt.

Bettencourt's daughter last week filed suit in court, arguing that her mother, the elderly heiress to the L'Oreal cosmetics fortune, was mentally incompetent and her affairs should be placed under judicial supervision.

But in an interview with Le Monde newspaper, writer and photographer Francois-Marie Banier said Bettencourt was "a completely sane woman" who had showered him with gifts that "for a long time, I refused."

Banier, 62, was given nine masterpiece paintings including works by Matisse and Mondrian worth 15 million euros, several cheques and life insurance policies between 2002 and 2007, according to the daughter.

"These were gifts that, for a long time, I refused. These gifts come from a completely sane woman," Banier told Le Monde in his first interview since the scandal broke in 2007.

The photographer and author of several novels is due to appear in court in Nanterre outside Paris on Friday 11 December to answer charges of exploitation levelled by Francoise Bettencourt-Myers.

Banier acknowledged that he had received gifts from Bettencourt, starting in 1995 and that this continued over about 10 years, but insisted that the elderly socialite was generous to all of her friends.

"I am not the only one who benefited, far from it," he said.

Bettencourt-Meyers is accusing Banier of taking advantage of her 87-year-old mother's frail health, saying she suffers from memory lapses that make her particularly vulnerable.

Bettencourt-Myers charged that Banier was "exerting a strong hold" on her mother in documents filed with the Nanterre court.

But her mother has insisted she is in full possession of her faculties and gave the money to Banier as gifts to a friend, dismissing her daughter's claims that she has been manipulated by a conman.

A court in Neuilly-sur-Seine, near Paris, earlier this week rejected Bettencourt-Meyers' request for judicial supervision after the daughter failed to submit medical records in support of her claim.

"The problem is that Liliane Bettencourt has always refused to undergo a medical examination" in the case, said lawyer Olivier Metzner, who repesents the mother.

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.

Georges Kiejman accused the 56-year-old daughter, who is still in line to inherit to the stake and is a member of the L'Oreal board, of "indecent haste" in seeking to seize "what is not yet entirely hers."

"Everything that she has given me is nothing compared to what she has taught me," said Banier. "It is nothing compared to the treasure in optimism, hope and elegance that she has given me."

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