By Daily News Correspondent
- The Industrialist’s holding company denies any irregularities in Guinea and Togo
Vincent Bolloré, one of France’s most audacious industrialists who last week stepped down as chairman of media group Vivendi, was placed in police custody on Tuesday as part of an investigation into suspected bribery of foreign officials in Africa.
Prosecutors are investigating whether a subsidiary of the French billionaire’s business empire helped win power for African leaders in return for contracts to operate ports. According to a person familiar with the inquiry, the police are looking into Bolloré Group, the family holding company whose African subsidiary claims to be the largest transport and logistics operator on the continent.
Mr Bolloré, who was being held in Nanterre, a suburb west of Paris, is known as a swashbuckling dealmaker and one of Europe’s leading corporate raiders with an empire spanning advertising and media to construction and shipping. Through Bolloré Group’s majority stake in Vivendi, he also controls Havas, Canal Plus and Universal. Vivendi also has a 23.9 per cent stake in Telecom Italia.
Prosecutors are probing whether Havas, the communications group that was a subsidiary of Bolloré Group until it was sold to Vivendi last year, under-charged for its services to help African leaders come to power, with a view to securing port concessions in Lomé in Togo and in Conakry, Guinea, the person with knowledge of the investigation said.
Havas is run by Mr Bolloré’s son, Yannick, who last week was also named as his replacement as chairman of the supervisory board at Vivendi, where Bolloré Group is the largest shareholder. Mr Bolloré’s detention was first reported by the French daily Le Monde.
Bolloré Group said in a statement that it was being investigated over invoices for communications services in Guinea and Togo during 2009 and 2010. “The Bolloré Group formally denies that its subsidiary company SDV Africa has committed irregularities,” it said. “The services relating to this invoicing were carried out in full transparency.”
Bolloré Group added that its transportation division “invested in Africa a long time before the takeover of Havas for port concessions whose success depends on huge investments and requires high-level expertise”.
A spokesman for Vivendi declined to comment. Mr Bolloré could not be directly reached for comment. Shares in Bolloré Group closed down 6.1 per cent in Paris trading while Vivendi finished 0.7 per cent lower.
Image: Vincent Bollore in Togo with President Faure Gnassingbe
In recent months, Mr Bolloré, who is 67, has been retreating from several of his business interests. In March, Vivendi sold its minority stake in French video games developer Ubisoft for €2bn, bringing to an end a three-year hostile relationship between the two companies. Earlier this month, Mr Bolloré stepped down as chairman of the supervisory board of pay-TV business Canal Plus, which is also owned by Vivendi.
With Le Président guinéen, Alpha Condé
It is not the first time that Mr Bolloré’s activities in Africa have come under scrutiny. Two years ago French authorities searched the headquarters of Bolloré Group as part of a sprawling investigation looking into the granting of a number of port concessions in west Africa.
French prosecutors were trying to determine whether Francis Perez, president of the Barcelona-based Pefaco Group, which runs casinos and hotels in Africa, helped Bolloré Group’s African logistics arm win a concession for the port of Conakry in 2011, and another for Lomé Port in 2010.
At the time, Bolloré Group said that Pefaco and its leaders were “completely unknown” to the company, and Pefaco said it had “no relationship with the Bolloré Group or its port activities in Africa”.
Yannick Bolloré takes over as chairman of Vivendi at a time when it is facing a battle in Italy over Telecom Italia. Vivendi has been challenged by US activist hedge fund Elliott Advisors, which is seeking to change the governance and strategy at the Italian telecoms group, where Vivendi is the largest shareholder.
Telecom Italia held its annual general meeting on Tuesday where its 2017 financial results were signed off and Amos Genish, an ally of Vivendi, was backed by a majority of the shareholder present as chief executive, according to Reuters. Vivendi is facing a stand-off with Elliott over board directors, which has been postponed to another shareholder meeting in May.