Billionaire Vincent Bollore is 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 Bollore -- is looking at contracts awarded to his company for the operation of container terminals in Lome, Togo, and Conakry, Guinea, according to a person familiar with the matter, who asked not to be named as the probe is ongoing.
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 Tuesday, according to the person.
The investigation is a sign that French authorities are stepping up their prosecution of international corruption cases -- and aren't afraid to go after top executives. Bollore runs a company with a market value of $14.7 billion that has a near-monopoly on ports in West and Central Africa. He is the biggest shareholder in Vivendi SA.
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, 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 designed to unsettle the billionaire that had already been used on former French President Nicolas Sarkozy, according to Bonifassi.
"During the interrogation you're with your lawyer and once they're over, you go back to your detention cell and have plenty of time to mull things over," Bonifassi said.
In France, investigative judges can decide to charge companies or individuals in a procedure known as "mise en examen" when there is "serious and consistent" evidence showing likely involvement in the matter under investigation.
The billionaire was the majority owner of Havas before it was acquired by Vivendi in 2017. Bollore's offices in Puteaux, France, were searched two years ago as part of the investigation, Le Monde reported at the time.
Bollore shares fell as much as 8 percent in Paris trading. They've declined 7.8 percent so far this year.
The detention and interrogation of Bollore is a way for France's financial prosecutor -- which is overseeing the probe -- to send a message that authorities are taking international corruption seriously, according to Bonifassi.
"The Parquet National Financier is today at a stage where it feels it has the capacity to take on one of the most important French executives," Bonifassi said in a phone interview. "That's something new."
Bollore, 66, took over his family's ailing paper company in 1981 and built an $14.8 billion conglomerate, with holdings including African railroads and Asian rubber plantations.
Known as a corporate raider and a close friend of Sarkozy, he is one of France's richest men, with a net worth of $6.6 billion.
Last week, Bollore handed over the reins at Vivendi, the French media company where he'd been chairman since 2014, to his son, Yannick Bollore.
Bollore has access to ports in West and Central Africa, holding concessions to operate container terminals in 15 nations including Guinea, Togo and Nigeria. The company also runs 25 dry ports including in landlocked nations such as Burkina Faso and Chad. The group's market share in Africa is about 13 percent, according to the company's website. It has operations in almost every country on the continent.
— Bloomberg News