French judge puts L'Oreal heiress under protection

October 20, 2011 - 7:40 AM
France L'Oreal Heiress

FILE - In this March 3 2011 file photo, L'Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt, left, and her daughter Francoise Meyers-Bettencourt arrive to the L'Oreal-UNESCO prize for the women in science, in Paris. Lawyers for L'Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt said Monday Oct. 17, 2011, a judge ordered the 88-year-old French billionaire and her fortune placed under the legal protection of her daughter and grandsons. (AP Photo/Thibault Camus, File)

COURBEVOIE, France (AP) — France's richest woman, the cosmetics heiress Liliane Bettencourt, was ordered Monday to be placed under the legal protection of relatives by a French court in the latest twist in a family drama worthy of television's "Dallas" or "Dynasty."

Lawyers for the L'Oreal heiress said a judge ordered the 88-year-old French billionaire and her fortune placed under the legal protection of her daughter and grandsons

Bettencourt lawyer Jean-Rene Farthouat called the decision by a judge in the western Paris suburb of Courbevoie "profoundly disappointing" and "quite simply criticizable." It goes into effect immediately.

Bettencourt's heirs reportedly are concerned about her health and management of her fortune, estimated at $20 billion by Forbes magazine. She is a major shareholder in cosmetics giant L'Oreal, which was founded by her father Eugene Schueller in 1907.

The daughter, Francoise Meyers-Bettencourt, and her mother have waged a years-long battle over the management of the fortune, but late last year appeared to have resolved their legal dispute over more than euro1 billion ($1.3 billion).

French daily Le Monde said the judge's decision was based in part on a court-ordered medical examination that found the heiress suffered from "moderately severe" Alzheimer's disease.

In a recent television interview, Bettencourt sharply criticized the attempts to put her under her daughter's legal guardianship, calling it "a monstrous idiocy." She had long refused to undergo the medical examination to evaluate her mental capacities before ultimately agreeing to it earlier this year.

She also told a French newspaper that she would flee abroad if the judge ruled to give her daughter guardianship. Her lawyer now says there is no question of Bettencourt leaving the country to escape the judge's ruling.

Bettencourt's daughter had publicly accused celebrity photographer Francois-Marie Banier of abusing her mother's alleged mental frailty and abusing her trust to bilk Liliane Bettencourt out of euro1 billion ($1.3 billion) in cash, artworks and other gifts. Banier, a longtime friend of Bettencourt's, has insisted he did not take advantage of her, but the dispute prompted a string of legal cases.

As the mother-daughter dispute escalated, Bettencourt raised questions about the future of the world's biggest cosmetics company once her daughter inherits it.

The Bettencourt family currently has a 31 percent stake, with Nestle of Switzerland the second-largest stakeholder.