L’Oreal cosmetics heiress Liliane Bettencourt, listed by Forbes as the richest woman in the world with a fortune of almost $50 billion, has died at the age of 94.
The one-time society beauty, whose wealth, complex family relations and scandal-tinged life often propelled her into society pages and headlines, died in Paris on Wednesday night (local time).
“My mother left peacefully,” her daughter Francoise Bettencourt-Meyers said.
For most of her nine decades Ms Bettencourt was better known for who she was than for what she did, even though her first job, at the age of 15, was as an apprentice in a L’Oreal factory, mixing cosmetics and labelling bottles of shampoo.
She was the daughter of L’Oreal founder Eugene Schueller, to whom she was always close.
In 1950, at the age of 28, she married Andre Bettencourt — a government minister of the 1960s and ’70s under former president Charles de Gaulle.
During those years, neither Mr Schueller nor Mr Bettencourt were able to shake accusations of pro-Nazi sympathies and anti-Semitism despite their close association with Francois Mitterrand, the former socialist president.
Mr Schueller funded a WWII pro-collaboration group and Mr Bettencourt wrote anti-Semitic tracts around the same time, although he later joined the French Resistance and said he regretted his earlier writings.
Ms Bettencourt inherited the L’Oreal empire when her father died in 1957 but running the company fell to Francois Dalle — another friend of Mr Mitterrand’s, who built the business into the $126 billion company it is today.
Famed for its “Because you’re worth it” advertising campaign, L’Oreal is France’s fourth-largest listed firm.
‘L’affaire Bettencourt’ that dogged Sarkozy
It was after her husband’s death in 2007 that the heiress’ own life took centre stage.
She became embroiled in a public fight with her only child, Francoise, when her daughter went to court to accuse photographer and socialite Francois-Marie Banier of taking advantage of her mother’s frailty. Mr Banier denied wrongdoing.
The scandal widened to include prominent politicians in 2008, when Ms Bettencourt-Meyers gave police secret recordings of conversations between her mother and her wealth manager, taped by Ms Bettencourt’s former butler.
Former president Nicolas Sarkozy was included in a subsequent probe into whether he exploited Ms Bettencourt’s mental frailty to fund his victorious 2007 election campaign.
Although the court dropped the inquiry, “l’affaire Bettencourt” dogged Mr Sarkozy, who was put under investigation in 2014 on suspicion of using his influence to gain details of the probe.
Mr Sarkozy denied any wrongdoing and said the case was political.
In October 2011, a court ruled Ms Bettencourt was suffering from a form of dementia, and awarded the daughter control over her mother’s wealth and income — then estimated at $26 billion and including about 33 per cent of L’Oreal.
This year, Forbes magazine estimated her fortune to be worth $49 billion.
Grandson Jean-Victor Meyers was designated to look after her health and physical well-being.
L’Oreal legend has it that Ms Bettencourt was not much loved by her mother, and certainly she was less than enamoured with her own offspring towards the end of her life.
“My daughter could have waited patiently for my death instead of doing all she can to precipitate it,” Mrs Bettencourt said in a TV interview recorded in her later years.