French tycoon held for second day in Africa corruption probe

The Autonomous Port of Conakry, which the Bollore Group received the contract to operate after Alpha Conde was elected president of Guinea

Paris (AFP) – Billionaire French industrialist Vincent Bollore was held for a second day of questioning by anti-corruption police on Wednesday over allegations his company helped two African leaders win elections in return for lucrative contracts.

The 66-year-old head of the Bollore Group was taken into custody Tuesday in the Paris suburb of Nanterre as part of an investigation into how its African logistics subsidiary secured contracts to run Lome port in Togo and Conakry port in Guinea.

Prosecutors are looking into whether Bollore Group’s communications arm, Havas, undercharged Guinean President Alpha Conde and Togolese President Faure Gnassingbe for work on their campaigns as a sweetener for the contracts, Le Monde newspaper reported.

Vincent Bollore is one of the France’s best-known businessmen, at the head of a powerful empire with interests in construction, logistics, media, advertising and shipping.

His company, which runs several ports and railways in Africa, denies any wrongdoing.

On Wednesday, investigators decided to hold Bollore and two senior executives — group chief executive Gilles Alix, and the head of the international division of Havas, Jean-Philippe Dorent — for a further 24 hours, after which they could face charges.

The company has insisted that it won the port tenders on the basis of its expertise and more than 2 billion euros ($2.4 billion) of investment in Africa over the eight years.

“Attempting to link the attribution of a port concession with communication services” was “a great misunderstanding of this economic sector and economic activity in general,” it said in a statement.

– Battles over ports –

Havas worked on the campaign that brought Alpha Conde to power in Guinea in 2010, as the country’s first freely elected president.

Months after taking office, Conde summarily terminated the contract of Conakry’s port operator — a subsidiary of French shipping company Necotrans — and gave it to rival Bollore.

Opposition leader Cellou Dalein Diallo, who has lost two elections to Conde, told AFP that the decision had “surprised many.”

“It is due to the ongoing inquiry in France that Guineans discover the true motive of this unjust and illegal move taken by Alpha Conde in the wake of his taking power,” he said. 

A French court in 2013 ordered the Bollore Group to pay Necotrans two million euros in compensation, but Bollore took over the company shortly afterwards.

Havas also worked on the communications strategy of Togo’s Gnassingbe, who succeeded his father Gnassingbe Eyadema upon his death in 2005.

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

The French investigation was triggered by a complaint from a former Bollore associate, Jacques Dupuydauby, who is appealing a Spanish jail sentence for misappropriation of company assets.

In 2016, police searched Bollore Group’s headquarters in the Paris suburb of Puteaux.

The probe is one of several in recent years over the dealings of French groups in former African colonies.

Other companies to have been investigated include former oil company Elf Aquitaine, which the French state was accused of using to funnel millions in bribes to African leaders in the 1990s, and nuclear giant Areva, which is under scrutiny over a controversial uranium deal in Niger.

Bollore’s empire began life in 1822 as a family-run manufacturer of paper for cigarettes and bibles.

He revived its flagging fortunes after taking the helm in the early 1980s and embarked on a blitz of acquisitions, earning a reputation of a formidable businessman.

The group owns a majority stake in telecom conglomerate Vivendi, owner of the Canal+ Group which is headed by Vincent Bollore’s son Yannick.

Two years ago, Bollore’s Africa business was thrust into the spotlight in an award-winning French TV documentary highlighting the miserable conditions of underage workers at a subcontractor of a Cameroonian palm oil company, in which the Bollore Group has a stake.