BOSSEY — Her elegance dazzled the world's most powerful men. When she stood next to her late husband Félix Houphouët-Boigny, Ivory Coast's first president who served from 1960 to 1993, it was impossible not to notice the graceful Marie-Thérèse.
"Everywhere I went, I would transcend," says the former first lady, now 84. "Besides, he did choose me for my beauty."
Still smiling, she adds, "I was also Pope John Paul II's favorite."
But those days of pomp, presidential palaces and dinners with Iran's imperial couple, the Kennedys, and the de Gaulles seem so far away now, in time as well as space. Marie-Thérèse, who used to be nicknamed the "Black Jackie Kennedy," has been hiding for years near a small French village on the Swiss border. She says she's bored by the hours spent watching television and embroidering. Even the splendid view of Geneva no longer comforts her. As a matter of fact, it's in that city, in bank coffers, that the fortune she thought she would inherit vanished into thin air.
A servant in livery brings the champagne. Marie-Thérèse, exuberant and barely wrinkled despite her age, admits to having abused parties in her prime. A chic and glamorous icon of the "Ivorian miracle" of the 1960s and 1970s, her charm was immortalized by Andy Warhol. She was in her 30s at the time, and her husband, nicknamed "the Old One," was twice her age.
It all ended on Dec. 7, 1993, when Félix Houphouët-Boigny died. The Ivory Coast lost its father, and Marie-Thérèse Houphouët-Boigny her husband — and his millions. "Instead of spending your time in an unbelievable funeral, you should have rushed here," a UBS banker told her in March 1994. "Your stepdaughter has already taken everything."
As soon as news of Houphouët-Boigny's death emerged, Parisian, Swiss and Ivorian lawyers and solicitors tried to inventory the inheritance. It was a difficult task given that the president's was one of the biggest fortunes on the planet. Without forgetting to take their own share, they split the pie between their constituents: Marie, Guillaume, François and Augustin, the four children of Khadija Racine Sow, the first wife, whom Houphouët-Boigny divorced 22 years before he married Marie-Thérèse, in 1952.
Félix Houphouët-Boigny and his wife Marie-Thérèse with the Kennedys in 1962 — Photo: Robert Knudsen
These heirs, discreet Parisians who still live off their father's wealth, have done everything they can to keep away the stepmother they so abhor. Contacted by Le Monde, they declined to answer our questions. It's possible that Houphouët-Boigny left one or even several wills, but none of them has resurfaced to date. The four children, with the backing of Henri Konan Bedié, Houphouët-Boigny's successor, asserted the existence of an oral bequest.
The late president did, however, write in July 1970, in Geneva, specific bequests concerning some of his possessions, for Marie-Thérèse and the first children of his first marriage. "He gave me an envelope with three bequests, with the instruction not to open it until his death," Marie-Thérèse whispers, her face hardening. "There were two bank accounts in Geneva and Zurich, and the contents of a deposit box at UBS in Geneva. But the others took everything."
She assures that her husband confided to her that he had arranged all inheritance matters with the French solicitor Jean-Michel Normand (who also declined to answer Le Monde's questions). "But when I went to that man's office in Paris, he apologized and said I'd lost my mind," she recalls.
Learning how to fish
In 1994, the widow first shut herself away in her villa in Cocody, a posh neighborhood in the Ivorian economic capital of Abidjan, before flying to Nassau, in the Bahamas, where she stayed for three years. There, she spent her days managing an African arts-and-crafts shop and learning how to fish. By night, she would drown her melancholy at the casinos. During that time, in Paris, Geneva and Abidjan, her husband's legacy continued to erode, like sand in an hourglass. At the end of the 1990s, she moved to Bossey, France.
Almost 15 years passed before she decided to take action, following advice from her lawyer and her friends. She says she's driven by a feeling of injustice, adding that she mostly lives off a 1,700-euro monthly pension ($1,900) paid by the French National Assembly.
The servants are paid by the Ivory Coast state. "They stole 20 years of my life," she says. "With that money, I could have made some Ivorians happy. And live better. I'm sick of depending on the Ivorian presidency's goodwill to buy my plane tickets."
Yammousoukro street scene — Photo: Joker-x/GFDL
She pressed charges in 2013 for, among other things, forgery and fraud. The investigation in France doesn't seem to be going anywhere. But in Switzerland, where she pressed charges against UBS, the court is expected to hear her case soon. These two legal actions are in part based on the 1970 bequests, of which she has a copy. But she continues to believe that a more comprehensive will exists somewhere. Maybe it's in the Vatican, as some rumors suggested, because of "the Old One's" close ties at the Holy See.
"Everything needs to be sorted," she says. "It's as if the president had just died." But in this fight, she's already scored some victories — for example, by proving that the document claiming that her husband's wealth and hers were to be separated was a forgery made in Abidjan.
In the documents Le Monde has seen, one name keeps coming back: Philippe Rideau. Marie-Thérèse accuses him of having siphoned her late husband's Swiss accounts for the four children, and of having sold off part of his furniture and paintings, including a Renoir, at Sotheby's. It was an estate estimated at the time at around 7.5 million euros ($8.5 million).
Rideau, a former vice president of JP Morgan in Paris, says he "didn't make any money in this inheritance business that I executed as a courtesy."
He says there were only 1.2 million francs ($1.3 million) left in the two Swiss accounts, to be shared between seven heirs. The seven include the four children from Houphouët-Boigny's first marriage, Marie-Thérèse, and the two children whom he adopted. And yet, in 1999, the only transfers were made to the first four children, who wished "to address it to the foundation Notre-Dame de la Paix," Rideau says.
The money was supposed to be used for the construction of a modern hospital near the Notre-Dame de la Paix basilica in the Ivory Coast's administrative capital of Yamoussoukro, in accordance with Houphouët-Boigny's and John Paul II's wishes. The rest of the money was supposed to come from the sale of the president's furniture and paintings, which ended up bringing in close to 21 million euros ($24 million), and of his apartments, villas and other real estate in France.
Félix Houphouët-Boigny with U.S. President Richard Nixon in 1973 — Photo: Schumacher, Karl H
On Jan. 14, Ivorian President Alassane Ouattara finally inaugurated the building. The Vatican and the Ivorian government footed the 22.8-million-euro bill, with an extra 4 million still missing for the equipment. The absence of "the Old One's" funds leads Marie-Thérèse's lawyer to believe they were embezzled.
Since 1993, all Ivory Coast presidents have had to deal with the mysteries surrounding Houphouët-Boigny's estate. But since she decided to claim what she believes is hers, the former first lady says she no longer feels welcome in her country.
Tonight, in her Bossey villa, she dwells on those words she says her husband told her in the twilight of his life. "You'll see, when I'm gone, you'll be the richest woman in Africa." Her gaze turns to an old photograph of them. He's wearing a tuxedo, she a fur.
"For a modest African girl, I was lucky enough to have a dream life among the world's first ladies. That was a bonus in my life. I now lead the life of a nun," she says succinctly. "God decided it that way."
But the final decision, the one that will settle whether she'll end her days embroidering or living lavishly, lies with the justice of men.