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Trouble is brewing in the top ranks at L'Oreal, a family-controlled company whose matriarch is struggling to keep her father's legacy together—and in France. It all began three years ago when Francoise Bettencourt-Meyers, the granddaughter of Eugène Schueller, L'Oreal's founding father, filed a lawsuit against a photographer who she claims had siphoned nearly €1 billion from the estate of her mother, Liliane Bettencourt.
Bettencourt is the heiress to the L'Oreal fortune, holding a 31% stake in the company (to Nestle, the second-largest shareholder's, 30%), as well as the richest woman in France.
In the process of suing the photographer, Bettencourt-Meyers also moved to have her mother declared "legally incompetent to manage her own affairs," reports the Observer. Industry insiders are saying that Bettencourt-Meyers, who is slated to inherit her mother's controlling share in L'Oreal, is planning to sell it to Nestle, relinquishing her family's legacy.
The plot thickened last month when Bettencourt's butler publicized secret tapes that showed the matriarch and her advisers systematically evaded taxes—and the government got involved when it came to light that the French Labour Minister and his wife were party to this, by working on her finances.
But the intrigue doesn't stop there: according to recent revelations, the participating minister is also said to have received a "large—and illegal—donation to the presidential campaign of Nicolas Sarkozy."
Amid all this sound and fury, however, there is only one thing Liliane Bettencourt considers worth getting worried about: the future of L'Oréal. "For 40 years I have devoted myself to my role as the chief shareholder of the leading cosmetics group in the world," said the billionaire last week in a defiant statement issued from her residence in rural Brittany. "I intend to continue with this task and hope that my daughter will not destabilise this group, which my father and I wanted to be French."France, cosmetics, drama. Let's see how this all unfolds.
· L'affaire L'Oreal: how a family feud has shaken France's national psyche [Observer UK]