PARIS – The trial of ten people accused of swindling France’s richest woman of artworks and cash worth hundreds of millions of euros began Monday with the shock revelation that one of the accused had attempted suicide hours before the soap opera-like case began.
The “Bettencourt Affair,” as the case surrounding 92-year-old L’Oreal cosmetics heiress Liliane Bettencourt has been dubbed in France, is a politico-financial scandal that has wound its way through French courts and newspapers for years, and is only now coming to trial.
A lawyer for Bettencourt — the world’s third richest woman with a fortune estimated by Forbes magazine at $39 billion — said the trial began with the announcement that one of the accused, Bettencourt’s nurse Alain Thurin, had tried to hang himself a day earlier.
Speaking on French TV, the lawyer Benoit Ducos-Ader said that shortly after news of the attempted suicide, the hearing was suspended until Tuesday so that lawyers could argue a procedural question.
The case stems from a 2007 complaint filed by Bettencourt’s daughter accusing one of her mother’s closest friends, the photographer Francois-Marie Banier, of swindling the wealthy heiress of artwork, cash and other favours worth hundreds of millions of euros.
The case eventually widened to the nine others on trial, including some of Bettencourt’s closest advisers and staff who are also accused of taking advantage of the elderly widow.
Bettencourt was placed under the guardianship of one of her grandsons four years ago, after she was diagnosed with dementia.
The complex saga also ensnared former French President Nicolas Sarkozy, but he was cleared in 2013 of preliminary charges that he had taken advantage of Bettencourt’s condition by accepting tens of thousands of euros in illegal campaign contributions on the way to his 2007 election victory.
Sarkozy’s then-campaign treasurer Eric Woerth is among the 10 people going on trial in Bordeaux Monday.
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