One of France’s most powerful tycoons defended himself on Sunday against charges that he helped African leaders win elections in return for lucrative contracts.
Vincent Bolloré, 66, who built a business empire in Africa over 30 years, claimed that the case against him was rooted in prejudice against the continent.
But commentators said it signalled that France would no longer turn a blind eye to corruption in Africa to serve the interests of the French elite.
In an article in the Sunday newspaper Journal du Dimanche, Mr Bolloré said Africa was wrongfully depicted in France as a “land of misrule, even corruption”.
Mr Bolloré, who denies any wrongdoing, is accused of ordering his political consultancy to help the presidential campaigns of Alpha Condé in Guinea and Faure Gnassingbé in Togo in return for licences to operate container ports. He said: “People imagine heads of state deciding by themselves to award huge contracts to unscrupulous investors.”
He argued that it was not “a few hundred thousand euros” spent on campaign communications that “determined hundreds of millions of euros of investment in port operations that require significant technical know-how, obtained through international tenders.”
Mr Bolloré is a friend of Nicolas Sarkozy, the former president who has himself been charged with illegally accepting millions of euros in campaign donations from Libya’s late dictator, Muammar Gadaffi. Mr Sarkozy denies the accusation.
Mr Bolloré was placed under formal investigation, equivalent to charging a suspect, on Thursday for alleged influence peddling and misuse of corporate funds.
With a fortune estimated at more than £6 billion, Mr Bolloré has interests ranging from construction and logistics to media, advertising and agriculture.
He operates in 46 African countries, which account for about a fifth of his businesses’ annual turnover of more than £16 billion, but he said the French investigation made him question whether he should continue doing business in the continent.
« 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.
He condemned “the inaccurate and condescending treatment of Africans” and warned that “soon, France will need Africa more than the other way round”.
Anticipating his legal difficulties, Mr Bolloré resigned this month as chairman of the media group Vivendi, which owns the world’s biggest record label, Universal Music. His son Yannick Bolloré has taken over.