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CORRUPTION

French tycoon Dassault ‘grilled over vote buying’

French industrial tycoon Serge Dassault, the billionaire manufacturer of fighter jets and France's fourth richest man was in custody Wednesday for alleged vote buying, a judicial source said.

French tycoon Dassault 'grilled over vote buying'
Serge Dassault was reportedly being held in custody on Wednesday. Photo: Eric Piedmont/AFP

French industrialist and senator Serge Dassault, the billionaire manufacturer of fighter jets, was in custody on Wednesday for alleged vote buying in his former fiefdom east of Paris.

The move comes a week after Dassault's parliamentary immunity was lifted. The 88-year-old is suspected of buying votes in Corbeil-Essonnes, east of Paris, where he was formerly mayor.

He has been accused of running the suburb like a mafia don. The veteran industrialist is being grilled in the western Paris suburb of Nanterre, a judicial source said.

Dassault is ranked by Forbes magazine as France's fourth-richest man and the 69th-richest in the world with an estimated fortune of €13 billion ($18 billion).

The judges suspect Dassault of operating an extensive system of vote buying which influenced the outcome of three mayoral elections in Corbeil in 2008, 2009 and 2010, which were won either by Dassault or by his successor and close associate Jean-Pierre Bechter.

The result of the 2008 vote, won by Dassault, was invalidated by the Council of State after the body which oversees public administration discovered a series of payments which could have influenced the outcome of the election.

That ruling did not require the same burden of proof as a criminal prosecution for vote buying would, but formal charges against Dassault now look inevitable.

Bechter has already been charged, as has Cristela de Oliveira, a former official in the mayor's office who is suspected of allocating council flats to families in return for backing Dassault or Bechter.

Dassault heads the Dassault Group, which owns the country's main conservative newspaper Le Figaro, and holds a majority stake in Dassault Aviation which makes business and military aircraft — including the Rafale fighter jet.

A lawmaker from former president Nicolas Sarkozy's UMP party, Dassault admits using his vast personal wealth to help residents of Corbeil, where he was mayor from 1995-2009, but denies any payouts were made in exchange for electoral support.

The vote-buying investigation has been linked — by the media but not publicly by the judges — to two shootings which took place in Corbeil last year and are considered by police to have been attempted murders.

The case has also triggered allegations of attempted extortion and intimidation, both by and against Dassault and his immediate family.

At least two men who claim to have been paid handsomely by Dassault to help organise the alleged vote buying have described a well-oiled electoral machine which targeted poorer families from immigrant backgrounds.

In return for casting their ballots the right way, residents could expect help with financing driving lessons — a key to coveted municipal jobs — or with finding accommodation subsidized by the local council.

As well as the alleged vote buying, Dassault could be charged with money laundering and misuse of public assets — sufficiently serious crimes to raise the possibility of a prison term.

In 1998, Dassault received a two-year suspended prison sentence in Belgium for bribing members of the country's Socialist Party to win an army helicopter contract in what became known as the Agusta scandal.

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CORRUPTION

Bolloré hits back at ‘condescending treatment of Africans’

French industrialist Vincent Bolloré has gone on the offensive over corruption charges brought against him over his business dealings in Africa, claiming the case was rooted in prejudice about the continent.

Bolloré hits back at 'condescending treatment of Africans'
Conakry, the port in Guinea at the centre of the graft accusations. Photo: Cellou Binani/AFP
In an opinion article published on Sunday in the French weekly Le Journal du Dimanche, the head of the Bolloré 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,” he wrote. 
   
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 Lomé port.
   
Defending himself against the claims, Bolloré 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?”
   
Bolloré, 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 Bolloré Group.
 
France 'will need Africa'
 
In the letter titled “Should we get out of Africa?”, Bolloré 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 Bolloré 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 Condé's winning 2010 election campaign.
   
Months after taking office, Condé terminated the contract of Conakry's existing port operator and gave it to rival Bolloré. Havas also worked on the communications strategy of Togolese President Faure Gnassingbe.
   
After Gnassingbe's re-election to a second term in 2010, the Bolloré Group won the 35-year Lomé port contract. Both decisions were challenged by other bidders.
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