French billionaire senator ‘hid €31 million in tax havens’

France's third wealthiest man the senator Serge Dassault is on trial for all sorts of alleged crimes, not least hiding €31 million from the tax man.

French billionaire senator 'hid €31 million in tax havens'
Serge Dassault and President François Hollande. Photo: AFP

Billionaire French industrialist Serge Dassault of aviation and software giant Dassault Group went on trial Monday for
allegedly stashing millions of euros in tax havens.

The 91-year-old Dassault, who is also a member of the French Senate with the conservative Republicans party, is France's third wealthiest person with a net worth estimated by Forbes magazine of $14.8 billion (13.3 billion euros).

The tycoon, who did not appear in court on Monday, has been caught in a complex legal web, accused of crimes ranging from laundering the proceeds of tax fraud to buying the votes of poor families of immigrant backgrounds in the southern Paris suburb of Corbeil-Essonnes where he was mayor for 14 years.

The trial that opened Monday relates to charges that he hid some €31 million from French tax authorities in Luxembourg, Liechtenstein and the Virgin Islands.

He is also accused of failing to declare €16 million in 2011 and €11 million in 2014 to the French High Authority for Transparency in Public Life, which tracks the income sources of public figures.

The first day was dominated by technical questions from his lawyers over the constitutionality of the charges against him, and some of the searches carried out during the investigation.

Vote-buying charge

The existence of the secret bank accounts emerged during a separate investigation into Dassault, over vote-buying in elections in 2008, 2009 and 2010 in Corbeil-Essonnes.

Dassault was mayor of the town from 1995 to 2009.

Dassault was charged in April 2014 with vote-buying, complicity in illegal election campaign financing and exceeding campaign spending limits.

He was charged alongside seven other people, including his friend and the town's current mayor Jean-Pierre Bechter.

Dassault admits using his vast personal wealth to help residents of Corbeil, but denies any payouts were made in exchange for electoral support.

Witnesses who claim to have been paid have told investigators that in return for support, residents could expect money for driving lessons or help with finding accommodation subsidised by the local council.

In May a court heard the money had fuelled violence, threats and extortion in the small town.

A close ally of Dassault, Younes Bounounara, was sentenced to 15 years in prison for attempted murder in May for shooting a man who filmed Dassault admitting he had given money to Bounounara to be distributed.

The French satirical weekly Canard Enchaine later revealed that Dassault had given Bounounara €1.7 million that he had not shared out as planned.

Cash in plastic bags

One of the other suspects in the vote-buying case, accountant Gerard Limat, testified in 2014 that he had used two Luxembourg accounts belonging to Dassault to distribute money during electoral campaigns in Corbeil-Essonnes.

Investigations revealed that nearly four million euros had been transferred from these accounts to “supposedly charitable organisations” in Algeria and Tunisia in 2009 and 2010, said a source close to the investigation.

Limat also said he would transfer money from Luxembourg accounts to a Swiss financial service which would bring cash to Paris that he would hand to Dassault.

In November 2014, Dassault's accountant reportedly told investigators that he delivered €53 million in plastic bags to his boss over several years.

Investigators uncovered voter lists at Dassault's home and offices, with the mention “paid” and “unpaid” next to their names, as well as remarks such as “drivers licence” or “support upon leaving prison”.

Dassault denies the charges of vote-buying, and the case is still under investigation.

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.

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 helicoptercontract in what became known as the Agusta scandal.

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.


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.