Liliane Bettencourt
Getty

The richest woman on the planet, and the wealthiest woman in history, Liliane Bettencourt is one of France's most famous people – but much of her life remains shrouded in mystery.

The heiress of the L'Oreal cosmetic empire still owns 33% of the company her father founded and was only replaced on the board by a grandson in 2012. Notoriously averse to appearing in the media, Bettencourt has found herself at the centre of unwanted attention in the last few years, amid alleged funding of conservative French politicians and the relationship with her estranged daughter.

Inheriting L'Oreal

Born in Paris in 1922, Bettencourt lost her mother aged only five and joined the family business as apprentice a decade later. Her father, Eugène Schueller, founded L'Oreal in 1909 and Bettencourt inhereted the business upon his death in 1957.

By then, the Paris-based company had developed into one of the world's largest cosmetic and beauty companies.

Mixing politics, business and family

In 1950, L'Oreal's heiress married French politician André Bettencourt, who became deputy chairman of the cosmetics giant and served as cabinet minister in French governments across the 1960s and 1970s.

Even before joining L'Oreal, Bettencourt's links with the Schuellers ran deep. During the 1930s, Bettencourt had been a member CSAR (Comité Secret d'Action Révolutionnaire – Secret Committee for Revolutionary Action), a fascist group founded by Eugène Deloncle and bankrolled by Schueller. Members of La Cagoule, as the group was known, were arrested in 1937 when the police discovered the organisation was planning to overthrow the government.

Liliane Bettencourt
Reuters

After the Second World War, some former members of La Cagoule were employed by L'Oreal, with the government not trying figures involved in the planned coup of 1937 until 1948. Bettencourt's husband later revisited his wartime's political views.

"I was 20 years old in 1940: it was an error of youth," he said.

"We thought the Marshal [Philippe Pétain, who was the Chief of State of Vichy France, also known as the French State] would lead us out of the mess [...] I always said I regretted what I wrote."

The Bettencourt affair

In 1987, Bettencourt met François-Marie Banier, after French magazine Egoiste commissioned him to photograph her. In the following years, the duo became close friends and Bettencourt became Banier's benefactor, so much so that Banier is thought to have received gifts worth a combined €1.3bn.

Manier, who worked as writer, artist and celebrity photographer, also received two insurance policies in 2003 and 2006, worth €253m and €266m respectively. In 2007, however, Bettencourt's daughter, Françoise, filed a criminal complaint against Banier. In the complaint, Bettencourt's daughter alleged Banier had exploited her mother's psychological weaknesses for personal gain.

The Brigade Financière, the financial investigative arm of the French national police, opened an investigation and the trial began in 2009. However, a series of delays ensued as the jury requested a medical examination on Bettencourt's mental state to establish whether any exploitation had taken place.

The L'Oreal heiress, however, refused to submit the examinations, resulting in the trial being adjourned until autumn 2010. In December of the same year, Bettencourt and her daughter reconciled and it emerged Banier had been written out the will.

However, the relationship soon turned nasty again, after in 2011 Bettencourt suggested her daughter needed to seek psychological help, which resulted in the pair being estranged once more.

The Sarkozy links

During the trial triggered by her daughter's complaint, Bettencourt found herself embroiled into a high-profile political scandal after her former accountant, Claire Thibout, alleged conservative French politicians often received envelopes stuffed with cash at the family's mansion in Neuilly-sur-Seine.

The scandal deepened when Thibout claimed Nicolas Sarkozy, who was the mayor of Neuilly-sur-Seine between 1983 and 2002 before serving as the President of France between 2007 and 2012, was a regular guest of the richest woman in the world.

While Thibout subsequently retracted the statement, she stated that Eric Woerth, who acted as the treasurer of Sarkozy's party, was given an envelope containing €150,000 in cash in March 2007.

Sarkozy and Woerth denied any wrongdoing, while Thibout claimed she had been pressured into retracting her statement by the police. However, police raided the office of Clymene, the company owned by Bettencourt to manage her wealth, bringing her considerable embarrassment.