Photographer on trial over L'Oreal heiress' fortune

1st July 2010, Comments 0 comments

A celebrity photographer went on trial Thursday accused of cheating the ageing heiress of the L'Oreal cosmetics empire Liliane Bettencourt out of a billion euros.

The trial started in Nanterre, west of Paris, with lawyers for photographer Francois-Marie Banier immediately demanding a postponement to study new evidence from secret tapes that have sparked a political scandal.

The bitter battle over the family's fortune has been complicated by a separate tax evasion scandal that hit Bettencourt last month, implicating Labour Minister Eric Woerth and embarrassing Nicolas Sarkozy's government.

"I consider that the methods used by the civil plaintiffs have crossed a line that should not be crossed," said Herve Temime, defending Banier.

Media last month published details of telephone conversations recorded by Bettencourt's butler, which allegedly revealed she was plotting to evade taxes on her fortune.

The lawyer complained that the tapes had been leaked to media before they were shown to lawyers in the case.

Temime demanded that a "nauseating and impossible" case against his client be postponed while he studies the new evidence.

"The means used are harmful to a fair trial," he added.

The prosecution said it had no objection to a postponement and judges were expected to set a new date for the trial

Banier, 63, sat in the Nanterre courtroom, drawing in a sketchbook as he waited for the trial to start and then sat solemnly listening as the arguments over a postponement were heard.

The friend to France's richest woman is accused of "fraudulently" exploiting 87-year-old Bettencourt, who gave him masterpiece paintings, cash and insurance policies worth a billion euros (about 1.2 billion dollars).

Both he and Liliane Bettencourt have rejected the daughter's claims and accused her of trying to cash in on her inheritance prematurely.

Banier, dubbed "photographer to the stars" after shooting the likes of US actor Johnny Depp and Princess Caroline of Monaco, became close friends with Bettencourt after meeting her at a dinner party in 1969.

Bettencourt-Meyers accuses Banier of swooping in after the death of her mother's husband, working to estrange her from her family and trying to persuade her to adopt him, according to court documents.

Banier told Le Monde last year that Bettencourt was sane and treated him generously as a friend. "These were gifts that, for a long time, I refused. These gifts come from a completely sane woman," he said.

If convicted, he faces up to three years in prison and a fine of 375,000 euros.

Liliane Bettencourt is the sole heir of the global shampoo and beauty products company L'Oreal that her father founded. Her current fortune has been estimated at 17 billion euros (20 billion dollars).

© 2010 AFP

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