Michael Bar-Zohar, Bitter Scent: The Case of L'Oréal, Nazis, and the Arab Boycott (London, Dutton Books: 1996) pp. 264. *
Everyone knows the name "L'Oréal." It is the biggest cosmetics manufacturer in the world. Almost everyone has bought one of their products at sometime in her or his life. Is it possible that this premier world-class firm has been a haven for nazis and so-called ex-nazis? Michael Bar-Zohar has written another of his historical thrillers, except that this is not a novel or a movie. It is a sleazy truth that is wending its way through the courts which Bar-Zohar has helped bring to light. Bitter Scent is the story of L'Oréal's involvement in the pits of nazi ideology.
Bar-Zohar's story begins with Jean Frydman who is a real hero of the Resistance, arrested and beaten by the nazis as a youngster, and an active Zionist with strong pro-Israel commitments and connections. After L'Oréal bought Helena Rubinstein, the great Jewish cosmetics firm, L'Oréal was subject to the Arab Boycott. Jacques Corrèze, a leader in the extreme right-wing group called La Cagoule who had been tried and convicted after the war for pro-nazi activities, turns out to be the man who was head of Helena Rubinstein for L'Oréal. Corrèze was also the person in charge of the L'Oréal negotiations with the Arab Boycott officials. He is believed to be the person behind a forged letter of resignation submitted in Jean Frydman's name.
This seems hardly believable: a former nazi activist heading a premier Jewish cosmetics company, then negotiating the Arab Boycott for the firm, and then working to force the resignation of a Jewish resistance fighter from a corporate board. The story, however, gets more unbelievable. Louis Deloncle, another high level pro-nazi activist, turns out to have been the head of L'Oréal in Spain. Eugène Schueller, founder of L'Oréal, turns out to have been a very serious supporter of very right-wing causes. François Dalle, president of L'Oréal, was involved in the coverup. André Bettencourt, the former owner of L'Oréal, turns out to have written and signed with his own name many articles, some of them outright antisemitic, for La Terre Française, the pro-nazi journal during the war. This means that Bettencourt, who was paid for his writing, was actually in the pay of the propaganda office of the Third Reich. When Frydman goes to look for copies of La Terre Française, they have "disappeared" from all libraries but the great Bibliothèque Nationale.
Toward the end of his life, the late President of France, François Mitterrand, allowed some of the skeletons to come out of his personal closet. His mistress and illegitimate daughter attended his funeral, together with his wife and real family, at his request. His involvements with the Vichy regime also came to light. Bar-Zohar tells the story of Mitterrand's involvement in the L'Oréal affair (chapters 13 and 14). As the investigation proceeded, Frydman was summoned to the the President's office and told by a one of the Mitterrand's staff, "You're coming too close." Frydman was urged to give up the case. Frydman, a long-time friend and supporter of Mitterrand, agreed provided the President agree to do certain things. Mitterrand renegged on the deal. Further digging revealed that, during the war, Mitterrand held a government post in the Vichy regime and that toward the end of the war, Mitterrand who meanwhile had joined the Resistance and Bettencourt were involved in a deal ostensibly to support a revolt of French POWs during the Allied invasion of Germany. The deal never worked and the (American) money disappeared (chapter 16).
This is a story of powerful men -- business giants, lawyers, politicians, people involved at the very highest levels of French society -- who are sitting on a dark secret and doing everything they can to cover up. It is also the story of a few courageous police and judicial officers in the French system, particularly Judge Getti and Colonel Recordon, who pursue the truth with dawn raids on offices and residences, and with just plain hard paper work. And, it is the story of a two bulldogs, Jean and David Frydman, who will not give up in spite of the unbelievability and the cover up. This story of corruption, its lawsuits and countersuits, its secrets and its lies, is a cliff-hanger which is not over yet. Bar-Zohar, who writes history well (he has written one of the classic biographies of Ben Gurion) and writes spy fiction well ( The Brothers ), has written this piece of history as a thriller. You cannot put the book down. And, if one comes away with a tarnished image of French industry and even of President Mitterrand, then so be it. The story speaks for itself.