Vincent Bolloré: the scourge of genteel French firms

Vincent Bolloré built his family paper-making firm into a conglomerate that sells everything from electric cars to Madonna’s music. Now he’s been accused of interfering in African elections. Jane Lewis reports.

While the attention of much of France this week was focused on the progress of the country’s “Trump whisperer”, Emmanuel Macron, in Washington, an intriguing drama was unfolding back at home. News of the arrest of Vincent Bolloré, one of France’s most powerful tycoons, following allegations of corruption in Africa, exploded like “a judicial bomb” in the heart of the Parisian establishment, says the French business magazine Challenges.

After presenting himself for questioning, Bolloré was banged up in a police cell – fuelling fears among the country’s financial elite, says The Times, that “influential figures” “can no longer rely on leniency from French investigators”.

The billionaire, who stepped down as chairman of Vivendi last week in favour of his son Yannick, is best known for his media interests. But the roots of his business empire stretch a good deal further. A former investment banker, Bolloré, 66, parlayed his family paper-making firm into an industrial conglomerate whose multiple holdings range from rubber and palm-oil plantations and an electric-car venture (run by his daughter), to Madonna’s record company.

Telecoms, banking, energy, freight, advertising – you name it, he’s involved. The Bolloré Group currently controls 16 of Africa’s biggest container ports, making him “pivotal” to the continent’s overseas trade. Prosecutors are now investigating whether Bolloré and two senior colleagues interfered in elections in Guinea and Togo in 2010 by dangling the cut-price expertise of its advertising and communications group, Havas, in exchange for port concessions.

Hobnobbing with politicians is nothing new to Bolloré, a longstanding friend and neighbour of the former French premier, Nicolas Sarkozy, says Advertising Age. That friendship prompted “a low-flame scandal” in 2007 when Bolloré’s “loan of a yacht to the French president sparked cries of conflict”. But this latest imbroglio could be trouble on a different scale.

Variously described as “ironic, sarcastic and difficult to read”, Bolloré can be “charming, with intense flashes of charisma”, says Ad Age. But he has always been “a wild card” in business. In the early 1970s, the firm’s paper business hit financial difficulties and was later sold to the investment group Edmond de Rothschild. It was there the young Vincent cut his teeth in investment, says EuropeanCEO. In 1981, he bought back the family company for a franc.

At that point, Bolloré began “accumulating”, says Ad Age, building stakes in companies until he either controlled them, or could exit at a profit. Quickly becoming known as “the scourge of genteel French companies that were big and slow”, he gained notoriety for his impertinent tilts at great French companies such Bouygues, Pathé and Lazard Frères.

Bolloré doesn’t like the term “corporate raider”, preferring to describe himself as a brocanteur, which translates as “dealer in secondhand goods”. He sees himself as a long-term industrialist for whom raiding is merely “a lucrative hobby”. A family dynast to the core, worth $7.5bn, according to Forbes, Bolloré has often said his greatest achievement was reviving and transforming the eponymous family firm, which he hopes to hand on to his children. He has long planned to retire in 2022 – the 200th anniversary of the firm. “Save the date. There will be a big fiesta,” he once boasted. That plan might now be subject to changes.