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French photographer Francois-Marie Banier arrives for an hearing at the courthouse in Bordeaux November 16, 2012 as part of a long-running investigation into the tax affairs of L'Oreal SA heiress Liliane Bettencourt, one of Europe's richest people.

Regis Duvignau/Reuters

Rancorous protests are filling the streets of France as the country struggles with the touchy issue of gay marriage. But as the passionate debate heats up, there comes a timely reminder that calling someone a homophobe could be a costly mistake.

French society photographer François-Marie Banier – whose previous legal troubles include accusations he tried to defraud the country's richest woman – has reportedly been ordered to pay the equivalent of about $1.28-million for slandering a homeless man with the epithet.

The victim, Michel Baldy, said that he was photographed without his permission and called a "clochard" (bum) when he protested. The situation deteriorated and Mr. Banier went to the police, alleging that he had been threatened and that his assailant was homophobic.

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But the tactic backfired as the homeless man sued, insisting he was no homophobe. According to the radio station RTL, he won and has been awarded €1-million for his "humiliation."

Mr. Banier has worked with top-level celebrities, including Johnny Depp, Woody Allen and Mick Jagger. He is gay but known for his relationships with much older women, some of whom helped fund his artistic career as a photographer, writer and painter.

Most famously, he became close to Liliane Bettencourt, the L'Oréal SA cosmetics heiress, who is worth billions. He received lavish gifts including art masterpieces, was made beneficiary on a pair of insurance policies valued at nearly $650-million and was named heir of much of her fortune. Her daughter accused him of attempting to con the older woman and the situation degenerated into furious legal and political wrangling. The case eventually sputtered to a halt and his status as heir was revoked.

Mr. Baldy, who had since got off the street and found work as an apartment caretaker, said he hoped Mr. Banier now admits that he had not been menaced and he was not anti-gay.

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