A butler who secretly recorded private conversations between aging L’Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt and her lawyers, financial advisers and various politicians will stand trial, along with five journalists who published the tapes’ contents, for breaching French privacy laws.
Bettencourt's now former butler Pascal Bonnefoy created the tapes over a 12-month period between 2009 and 2010 by placing a hidden recording device in the drawing room of Bettencourt's mansion in suburban Paris.
Bonnefoy said he had only acted to protect his employer, as he was concerned about the numerous hangers on in her entourage – a concern that was also held by other members of her family.
He told police in subsequent interviews: "I could not continue without doing anything and still be able to look at myself in the mirror. I had served Monsieur and Madame Bettencourt during so many years, and I could not let all these people around Madame carry on without reacting."
Bettencourt, the daughter of L'Oreal's founder Eugene Schueller and one of its principal shareholders, is worth a reported $30 billion (€22.8 billion).
Extracts from Bonnefoy's tapes, published in French media outlets Le Point and Mediapart in 2010, sparked an investigation into several high-profile politicians, including former president Nicolas Sarkozy and many of Bettencourt's lawyers and financial advisers. They were accused of corruption, tax evasion and abus de faiblesse – taking advantage of the vulnerable.
Sarkozy and former finance minister Eric Woerth are now under formal investigation, along with members of Bettencourt's legal and financial team.
It is not clear how the tapes ended up in the hands of the press, and the journalists involved have refused to disclose their sources. Bonnefoy told police that Bettencourt's daughter, Francoise Bettencourt Meyers, was the first person he passed the recordings to.
Along with Bonnefoy, five journalists from Mediapart and Le Point face prosecution.
According to the court summons, the fact the journalists themselves had admitted the recordings were made without the consent of Bettencourt was enough to define their actions as an offence.
But it said the question was to find out whether there was a sufficient public interest case to justify the intrusion into Bettencourt's private life.
One of the case’s three judges stated in the summons: "It would be useless to argue that without the secret recordings created by Pascal Bonnefoy, and their publication by different newspapers, the Bettencourt affaire would have followed the same course."
Mediapart said in a statement that it had only published evidence that exposed corruption, money laundering and interference – factors it considered to be in the public interest.
French privacy laws are among the strictest in Europe, and it is an offence to publish any information on someone's private life, or even to take or disseminate a photo, without their express permission.
The date of the trial has yet to be confirmed.