French tycoon blames prejudice for Africa corruption charges

Bollore sits at the head of a sprawling business empire
AFP

Paris (AFP) – French industrialist Vincent Bollore went on the offensive Sunday over the corruption charges brought against him over his business dealings in Africa, claiming the case was rooted in prejudice about the continent.

In an opinion article in French weekly Le Journal du Dimanche the head of the Bollore Group, who was charged in connection with the awarding of two lucrative port concessions in West Africa, said the continent was wrongfully portrayed in France as a “land of misrule, even corruption”.

“People imagine heads of state deciding by themselves to award huge contracts to unscrupulous investors.”

Investigating magistrates on Thursday charged the 66-year-old over allegations that his group’s communications arm undercharged the presidents of Guinea and Togo for work on their election campaigns as sweeteners for contracts to operate Conakry port and Lome port.

Defending himself against the claims, Bollore wrote: “Who could imagine that a few hundred thousand euros in spending on communications, which were accounted for in a transparent manner… determined hundreds of millions of euros in investment in port operations that require significant technical know-how, obtained through international tenders?”

Bollore, one of France’s most powerful businessmen, sits at the head of a sprawling business empire with revenues of 18.3 billion euros ($22.4 billion) in 2017 and interests in everything from construction and logistics to media, advertising and agriculture.

Africa accounts for about 20 percent of its turnover, excluding the Vivendi media group which is controlled by the family-run Bollore Group.

– France ‘will need Africa’ –

In the letter titled “Should we get out of Africa?”, Vincent Bollore said the French investigation had made him question whether he should pursue his activities on the continent, where he had invested 4 billion euros ($4.8 billion).

“I have realised over the past few days that what we have been doing in good faith for a long time, seen through the prism of those who consider the continent to be run by lawless people, is fertile ground for legitimate suspicion,” he wrote.

Slamming the “inaccurate and condescending treatment of Africans” he warned that “soon, France will need Africa more than the other way round.”

The nearly 200-year-old Bollore Group operates a dozen container ports in Africa and has stakes in several others, along with three railway concessions and interests in palm oil production.

Its communications arm Havas worked on Guinean President Alpha Conde’s winning 2010 election campaign.

Months after taking office, Conde terminated the contract of Conakry’s existing port operator and gave it to rival Bollore.

Havas also worked on the communications strategy of Togolese President Faure Gnassingbe.

After Gnassingbe’s re-election to a second term in 2010, the Bollore Group won the 35-year Lome port contract.

Both decisions were challenged by other bidders.

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