L'Oreal heiress and the world's richest woman, Liliane Bettencourt, has died.

Bettencourt died early on Thursday at the age of 94, her daughter Francoise Bettencourt-Meyers has announced.

"Liliane Bettencourt died this night at home. She would have been 95 on October 21. My mother left peacefully," Bettencourt-Meyers said.

Bettencourt was ranked the richest woman in the world with a fortune of US$39.5 billion ($54b) last year, making her the world's 14th richest person.


L'Oreal chairman and CEO Jean-Paul Agon expressed his condolences to the family and said: "We all had a deep admiration for Liliane Bettencourt who has always watched over L'Oreal, the company and its employees, and who was very attached to its success and development.

"She personally contributed a lot to its success for very many years.

"A great woman of beauty has left us and we will never forget her."

In later life, Bettencourt had been at the heart of a high-profile legal battle over whether she was in her right mind when she handed over almost €1 billion ($1.6b) in artworks and life insurance to Francois-Marie Banier, a celebrity photographer.

In 2007, Bettencourt-Meyers filed a criminal suit against Banier for "abus de faiblesse" (abuse of weakness), claiming that he had ruthlessly exploited her then 84-year-old mother's oncoming dementia. Bettencourt-Meyers said she felt compelled to act when an eavesdropping chambermaid told her she had heard Banier asking to be adopted by Bettencourt.

The so-called Bettencourt Affair electrified France for a decade and seriously damaged the presidency of Nicolas Sarkozy.

Patrice de Maistre, who managed Bettencourt's vast fortune, was accused of getting her to hand envelopes of cash to members of Sarkozy's right-wing UMP party during his 2007 presidential campaign.

The charges against Sarkozy, who denied all wrongdoing, were subsequently dropped in October 2013 because of a lack of evidence.

Secret tape recordings made by the Bettencourt butler revealed conversations about donations in the tens of thousands and requests from her entourage for financial gifts.

In May 2015, a French court found eight people guilty of taking advantage of her dementia. Banier was sentenced to three years and ordered to pay Bettencourt $172 million.

Banier and Bettencourt-Meyers recently came to an out-of-court agreement on ending further legal action.

Last year, an appeals court reduced his sentence to four years suspended and a €375,000 fine.

On Thursday, in the latest legal chapter in the long-running series of court battles, a Bordeaux judge acquitted five journalists of "breaching the intimacy of the private life" of Bettencourt and ruled that her former butler was "not penally responsible" for illegally recording the late heiress because he did so to protect her.