French billionaire arrested in bribes probe
French billionaire Vincent Bollore was being held for questioning by French judicial police Tuesday as part of an investigation into possible bribes of public officials in two African countries.
The probe - which could result in charges against Mr Bollore - is looking at contracts awarded to his company for the operation of container terminals in Lome, Togo, and Conakry, Guinea, according to a source.
Investigating judges suspect that managers of Bollore Groupe used advertising company Havas to facilitate the election of African officials by providing communications advice nearly a decade ago at a discount price, the person said. Other managers were also held for questioning on Tuesday, according to the person.
The investigation is a sign French authorities are stepping up prosecution of international corruption cases - and aren't afraid to go after top executives. Mr Bollore runs a company with a market value of $14.7bn (€12.02) that has a near-monopoly on ports in West and Central Africa. He is the biggest shareholder in Vivendi.
The Bollore Groupe said in a statement that one of its units is the target of an investigation over billing for communication services in Guinea and Togo in 2009 and 2010. The company said that it "formally denies" that the unit did anything irregular.
"The interrogation of its executives will provide clarity to the judiciary on these questions, which were the subject of an independent audit that found the operations were perfectly regular," the company said. The executives "are happy to cooperate fully" with authorities.
The police interrogation, which was reported earlier Tuesday by French daily 'Le Monde', could last all day and even be extended to a total of 48 hours, according to Stephane Bonifassi, a criminal lawyer in Paris, who isn't involved in the case. In all likeliness, Mr Bollore will then be charged by the lead investigator in the case - known in France as an investigative judge.
Placing a suspect in custody for interrogation rather than issuing a simple summons is an age-old "spectacular" trick in France, often used to unsettle subjects of an investigation, including recently ex-President Nicolas Sarkozy, Mr Bonifassi said. (Bloomberg)