The billionaire head of logistics giant Bolloré has been taken into custody in the French city of Nanterre as part of an investigation into the bribing of public officials in the west African countries of Togo and Guinea.
It is alleged that Bolloré won container port concessions there in return for helping the countries’ respective presidents win elections.
Shares in the group fell 8% after news of the arrests broke.
Bolloré denies any wrongdoing.
The accusations against Vincent Bolloré date back to 2010, when, it is alleged, Bolloré used its Havas marketing and communications arm to offer discounted services to African politicians. It is claimed that in return for winning elections, the politicians would then offer Bolloré lucrative container port concessions. Â
As well as Vincent Bolloré, who is the conglomerate’s chairman and chief executive, magistrates detained Gilles Alix, the general manager of the group, and Jean-Philippe Dorent, head of the international arm of Havas.
According to Le Monde, Dorent helped Alpha Condé become the first democratically elected president of Guinea and Faure Gnassingbé to win the Togolese presidential election in 2010. It added that Bolloré had become friendly with Condé during Condé’s exile in Paris.
The Guinean capital of Conakry, showing the container terminal at the centre of the allegations (Joel Guinea/Creative Commons)
In return for these services, it is alleged, Bolloré obtained preferential treatment when it bid for the Lomé container terminal in Togo and the Conakry terminal in Guinea (pictured).
An interview Guinean president Condé gave to Le Monde in 2016 may not have helped Bolloré’s case. When asked about his relationship with the company and the award of the Conakry facility, Condé said: "Bolloré fulfilled all the conditions of calls for tenders. It’s a friend, I favour friends. So what?"
The contract award sparked a legal battle in France between Bolloré and Necotrans, another French logistics company, which was three years into a 25-year deal to run the Conakry terminal. Necotrans later went into receivership, and some of its assets were bought by Bolloré.
The investigation into the affair has been under way for a number of years. In 2016, police raided the company’s offices in Puteaux, western Paris, and seized documents relating to Havas dealings with the West African countries.
Bolloré has issued a statement on its website denying the accusations. It said they stemmed from claims made by a former employee who was sentenced to three years and nine months in prison for embezzlement.
The statement says: "[Bolloré’s] former subsidiary, SDV Africa, did not engage in any illegal actions and the Bolloré Group reaffirms that these communication services were conducted in full transparency.
"The hearing of its executives should provide the judicial authorities with useful clarification regarding these issues that have been assessed by an independent expert. This expertise led to the conclusion that these transactions fully complied with all laws and regulations."
Bolloré’s interests cover transportation, paper and energy. It is ranked in Europe’s top 200 companies and is majority owned by the Bolloré family. It owns an 83% stake in Havas.
Top image: Vincent Bolloré speaking at a global conference (Creative Commons)