Netflix’s latest true crime docuseries offering, The Billionaire, The Butler, and The Boyfriend, brings to screen one of the most shocking political scandals in recent French history. With a connection to the world’s erstwhile richest woman, Liliane Bettencourt, there is plenty of intrigue and surprises in this story to be turned into a short, three-episode documentary. Although there is far less hard crime, meaning murder or physical harm to anyone, in it than in other shows of a similar kind, The Billionaire, The Butler, and The Boyfriend is quite hooking and fun to watch.
What Brought Liliane Bettencourt To The Attention Of The Media?
To begin with, the attention of the media or even the gaze of the world was not something unfamiliar to the protagonist of The Billionaire, The Butler, and The Boyfriend, Liliane Bettencourt. She was the only child of French pharmacist and businessman Eugene Schueller, the founder and owner of L’Oréal. As one of the world’s most successful beauty and cosmetics brands, L’Oréal still fetches huge fortunes as profits to this very day, and the company pays off its shareholders parts of this profit every year as usual. Therefore, being the only successor to the company, Liliane Bettencourt received this yearly money long after the passing of Schueller. Added to this was her family wealth, which she had inherited from her father, and these easily made Liliane Bettencourt the richest woman in the world until her demise in 2017. Anybody with such a rich title beside their name would always be at the center of media attention, and Liliane, too, was very used to this treatment. But around 2007, the reason for Liliane’s frequent appearance on news TV programs was very different than usual, and the Netflix docuseries sets out to tell this very story.
Despite the great fortune that she owned, Liliane Bettencourt’s life was not entirely happy, and this was because the woman was terribly alone in life. In 1950, Liliane got married to a French politician, Andre Bettencourt, who remained her husband till his death in 2007. However, it was well known that Andre and Liliane had no romance or chemistry between them at all, and their marriage seemed more like an arrangement. As commenters in the Netflix docuseries state, Andre had no interest in women, and he had a completely separate life of his own. The couple had a daughter together, Francoise, and they did not even try for any second child, making it evident that their only moments of intimacy were for the sole purpose of giving birth to an heir. Once that was achieved, Andre and Liliane had different bedrooms, and their lives also drifted apart, despite the fact that they lived in the same house.
Francoise grew up to have very different interests and perspectives than her mother, as the young woman did not just want her identity to be that of the heiress of L’Oréal. Unlike Liliane or anyone in the French high society, Francoise did not like giving interviews or appearing in front of the media, and so it was very obvious that she was not too close to her mother after a certain age. Liliane spent her days at the Bettencourt mansion in Neuilly-sur-Seine, mostly restricted to her room. While there was a big group of workers and helpers hired to maintain every small detail of the house and the woman’s finances, there was really no friend or confidante with whom Liliane could talk her heart out. In a sense, there was really a void for anyone to just walk in and become friends with the world’s richest woman, and more often than not, there would be other intentions behind such a happening.
This is exactly what happened when a man named Francois-Marie Banier became Liliane’s friend through a mutual artist friend. As the man was a photographer by profession, Banier was commissioned to take photos of Liliane for an article in a French elitist magazine that covered the lives of high society. This started the friendship and then a relationship between Liliane and Banier, one that surprised and shocked some of the working staff at the Bettencourt mansion, but one that did not immediately raise alarms. The nature of this relationship seems to have been more like a very close friendship, and while there were mentions of physical proximity in the messages the two shared with each other, there was perhaps no sexual intimacy involved since Banier was openly homosexual.
Gradually, as the relationship between the two started to grow deeper, Liliane’s daughter, Francoise, started getting suspicious that Banier was taking advantage of her mother. This was simply because the man was being gifted exorbitant amounts of money and very expensive paintings by Liliane. It was not very difficult to imagine that the woman, who was enjoying the company of Banier in her life, was being indirectly manipulated into giving him parts of her fortune. While Francoise mostly kept these suspicions to herself and to a specific diary that she maintained about her inner thoughts, she finally decided to take a step in 2007.
Andre Bettencourt, Liliane’s husband, passed away in 2007, leaving the entire fortune in her name, and as the only successor, Francoise would receive it after her passing. However, Banier now directly asked Liliane to adopt him as her son, which would make him part of her wealth as well. Obviously, seeing this suggestion as an extreme warning, Francoise Bettencourt Mayers officially submitted a complaint to the police that her mother was being cheated by Banier. It was this complaint that once again brought media attention to the family, first owing to the rift between the mother and the daughter and then because of the other findings that were slowly revealed.
What did the secret recordings reveal about Liliane?
After Francoise’s police charges, Liliane was swift to respond in a defensive manner, as she immediately wrote to her daughter to withdraw her complaint. It was clear that the mother and daughter were now two different sides, and the workers at the Bettencourt mansion all took sides secretly, either supporting Liliane or Francoise. It was at this point that the butler of the house, a man named Pascal Bonnefoy, decided to do something that would be instrumental in the events that followed. As he found Banier extremely crude and ill-mannered, Pascal fitted a recording device on the food tray every time he served Liliane and recorded her conversations to find any evidence against the man. When Bonnefoy collected all these recordings, he handed them over to Francoise, and the daughter eventually saw to it that the recordings were leaked to the media.
Francoise Bettencourt Meyers understandably did not have the time or the desire to go through each of the voice recordings, as she was sure that they would frame Banier as a conning manipulative. However, as the subjects of these recordings became public, some very different financial secrets were found out about Liliane Bettencourt. As it happened, most of the tapes were of conversations between the woman and her financial adviser, Patrice de Maistre, in which detailed discussions about the woman’s wealth were made. As soon as these discussions became public, they started a massive scandal that ranged from tax evasion to illegally donating money for political campaigns. There was a large portion of Liliane Bettencourt’s wealth that had been hidden from the French authorities, meaning that the woman was not paying tax for it. There were a number of Swiss accounts, which were also unannounced, and Patrice suggested that they be moved to other countries like Hong Kong and Uruguay, which were known tax havens. Liliane even owned a private island in the Seychelles called D’Arros Island, which was also never announced to the French authorities. Since the money used to buy the island had been taken from one of Liliane’s offshore accounts, announcing either would get her into financial trouble.
Soon, some more incriminating records against the woman were found, with regards to some really shady arrangements with French politicians. The name of Eric Woerth, the Minister of Labour at the time, came up in the recordings, and it was suggested that Woerth was receiving money from the Bettencourt family as donations. A French investigative journal, Mediapart, also reported that Woerth had apparently taken money from Liliane as a donation to fund the presidential campaign of the erstwhile President, Nicolas Sarkozy. The problem was that these donations were all illegal, since they greatly exceeded the officially permitted amount of donation for political campaigns, and since there were no receipts of these payments either, as they were all made in cash. As soon as this information was released in the media, the French authorities started to investigate the matter.
One of Liliane’s ex-accountants, Claire Thibout, also started talking to the press at this time, and she supported all the claims about the unlawful political donations and the tax evasions. Claire became an integral part of the investigation, as her reports were relied on. However, there was a change in the attitude of the authorities after some time, and many still believe that Liliane Bettencourt had asked for this arrangement. After all, she had been close to Sarkozy ever since his youth, and there was evidence in the recordings that she had reached out to the president’s office to sort out the police complaint that Francoise had made. It is heavily suggested that the authorities were ready to ignore the whole matter, favoring Liliane and Banier, but the political connections in the tapes marred this arrangement.
What happened to Liliane and Banier following the scandal?
The sound recordings that Bonnefoy had made were intended to find some dirt against Banier that would prove that he was cheating the old billionaire, but they had revealed a different scandal altogether. As more of the recordings were listened to, it seemed like a number of people around Liliane were trying to make use of her old age. The financial adviser, Patrice de Maistre, had been recorded asking for money to buy a luxury boat for himself. Other recordings suggested that Liliane greatly depended on others while taking financial decisions, and such a situation could very well be misused. Soon, a medical examiner was hired to diagnose her situation, and she was found to have cognitive and reasoning disorders. Liliane had indeed paid exorbitant amounts of money to numerous people, like her lawyer or the chairman of L’Oreal at the time, and it was difficult to pin any blame on anybody.
Based on the medical evaluation, Liliane was placed under guardianship, as she was deemed unfit to take her own decisions. The relationship between her and Francoise improved after this, and the two bettered their once non-existent bond. Following Liliane’s death in 2007, Francoise inherited the L’Oreal fortune in 2023. The political scandal did not ultimately have any direct effect, as Nicolas Sarkozy’s name was cleared from the matter. The man has failed to get any new political mandate since losing his re-election in 2012. Patrice de Maistre was the one most affected by the scandal, as he was made to spend some months in prison and was also ordered to pay monetary compensation. He has signed an agreement with Francoise, reducing the amount to be paid.
The detailed investigation did yield some results when Francois-Marie Banier was found guilty of manipulating Liliane’s disorders and taking away money and valuables from her. The man had already once committed similar financial fraud with another rich elderly woman, Madeline Castaing. The man was now sentenced to two and a half years in prison by the court, and he was also ordered to pay around 150 million dollars for his actions. However, he appealed the decision and was allowed a new trial with new judges, in which he was relieved of both the prison time and the penalty amount.