How a young photographer swindled the world's richest woman and caused an international scandal.

It was 1987 when a young photographer, François-Marie Banier, came into contact with one of the richest women in the world. 

L'Oréal heiress Liliane Bettencourt was to be photographed for the French Magazine Egoïste and Banier was assigned the gig. Despite being 25 years Liliane's junior, Banier and the heiress hit it off instantly. 

At the time Liliane might have been immensely wealthy and enormously powerful, but, according to sources, she was also deeply lonely, utterly bored and trapped in an unhappy marriage. Banier was a young and exciting gay artist who offered her something a $40 billion fortune couldn't – joyful companionship. 

Their platonic relationship, which spanned across decades, is currently the subject of Netflix's latest documentary series The Billionaire, the Butler and the Boyfriend. 

However, it's not just their unlikely friendship that became tabloid fodder. Instead, it was how it led to the dismantling of a mother and daughter's relationship, a lengthy and fraught legal battle and a dramatic plot twist – the unravelling of one of the biggest political scandals France has ever seen. 

Watch the trailer for The Billionaire, the Butler and the Boyfriend. Post continues below.

Video via Netflix.

One of the main players in the docuseries is Liliane's daughter Françoise Bettencourt Meyers. To the outside world the mother and daughter lived an idyllic life running the largest beauty business in the world. However, there were cracks in their relationship due to Banier. 

While Françoise had felt mostly unloved by her mother, Banier basked under Liliane's affection and was lavished with hundreds of millions of dollars of real estate (including an island), precious artworks (Picasso paintings) and other gifts.

It's said she spent around AUD$2.1 billion on him. 

Their friendship might have been inconceivable to some, but for those who knew and met Banier, it was clear he held the key to a world she hadn't explored before. According to Vanity Fairhe was close with luminaries including Salvador Dalí, Yves Saint Laurent, Samuel Beckett and even Johnny Depp (Banier is in fact Lily-Rose Depp's godfather) and he introduced Liliane into his artistic circles. 

It's said that he understood her and while she appealed to his sympathies, he also appeared to hers. 

"She was demanding in some ways – she would demand his attention, demand he come over," author of The Bettencourt Affair Tom Sancton said. "Both of them are playing an emotional game of seduction. She would tell him what to do with the money she gave him. She's not just a benefactor, she's pulling the strings."


Things came to a head though. Following the death of Liliane's husband, André Bettencourt, in 2007, Françoise found out that Banier had asked Liliane to adopt him. Staff at Liliane's mansion also whispered rumours of Banier, claiming they had seen him pee in the flowerbeds, lie in his friend's bed with his shoes on and make requests for money.

Liliane Bettencourt and Françoise Bettencourt Meyers. Image: Getty.

Convinced that her mother was being financially abused by Banier, she filed a criminal complaint against Banier for abus de faiblesse, which translates to exploiting the weakness of her aged mother. This set in motion a decade-long battle.


During the case, the jury delayed their verdict for nearly half a year, as they often could not proceed due to Liliane's lack of cooperation. 

Liliane refused to have her medical state examined and intentionally prolonged the verdict. All the while, Françoise continued to accuse Banier of manipulating her mother but could not prove it to the court and the public.

Luckily for Françoise, she had an unexpected ally: Liliane's once faithful butler, whistleblower Pascal Bonnefoy, who feared that his mistress was being exploited out of her wealth. 

So, he started secretly recording conversations between Liliane and members of her inner circle between 2009 and 2010.

Liliane Bettencourt and François Marie Banier. Image: Getty


In 2010, Bonnefoy eventually presented a tape that divulged Liliane's plan to make Banier her "sole heir". This became a major turning point.

Bonnefoy's recordings did prove that Liliane was not in a good mental state to be giving out presents – to Banier or anyone else – including her financial advisor Patrice de Maistre who was on the verge of convincing her to buy him a new boat. However, the 20 hours of audio also revealed that the billionaire had been committing tax evasion, stealing millions from France's treasuries, and perhaps donating illegal sums of cash to the campaign of Nicolas Sarkozy, who was the country's president from 2007 to 2012. 

What's interesting is that the recordings also revealed that Liliane was showing signs of struggling with dementia. It was subsequently confirmed when she was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. This meant her responsibility in all of her actions was considered by many to be significantly lesser.


One thing was absolutely clear though – Liliane, the elderly billionaire with money to throw around, was taken advantage of by her staff and her alleged friends. 

Her daughter's struggle to free her from the "predators" eventually came to fruition in 2015.

The whole affair ended with Françoise getting her mother away from Banier, prompting her to sign a document that had her placed under guardianship. Françoise's whole argument was that her mother was unfit to agree to anything. Banier was given a three-year prison sentence for "abuse of weakness" and ordered to pay a hefty fine. 

His legal team appealed and in the end, he was handed a four-year suspended sentence and his AUD$263 million fine was reduced to just $625,000.

Liliane died peacefully at age 94 in 2017. 

As for what Banier is up to now, he is still living and working as an artist. The now 76-year-old is about to release the first volume of his memoirs, titled Interrupted Dialogues, in January 2024.

"It is not behind me, it is in me," Banier said of the Bettencourt affair, to TV5Monde

"Because she is an extraordinary woman and I'm very fortunate to have lived 40 years of friendship with her. The rest you will judge when the story becomes clearer."   

The Billionaire, the Butler and the Boyfriend is available on Netflix now.

Feature Image: Getty/Mamamia.

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