If you find yourself in a Havas office – or any part of Vincent Bolloré’s far flung empire which includes Vivendi as well as African logistics giant Bolloré Group – don’t mention the words Bell Pottinger.
Bell Pottinger was the substantial British PR firm that imploded when it was implicated in an illegal social media campaign for the Indian Gupta brothers, aimed at destabilising political opponents of then South African president Jacob Zuma.
The Gupta brothers’ mining to media empire in South Africa then promptly unravelled too.
Vincent Bolloré has been placed under formal investigation (one step short of a formal indictment) over alleged links between electoral campaign consultancy work carried out by Havas in Togo and Guinea, allegedly at below cost. The payback is alleged to have been port concessions. Ownership of two ports was subsequently transferred to Bolloré Group. Bolloré denies the charges but he’s taking them seriously all the same: stepping down suddenly as chair of Vivendi in favour of son Yannick (both below), who runs Havas although he didn’t in 2010 when the alleged offences took place.
At the same time Jean-Philippe Dorent, head of the international division at Havas in Paris, has also been placed under formal examination; in his case for breach of trust and forgery and as a witness for bribery of a foreign public official.
Intriguingly the judges investigating Bolloré are Aude Buresi and Serge Tournaire, who are also formally investigating former president Nicolas Sarkozy over allegations that the late Libyan dictator Colonel Gaddafi donated €50m in illicit funds to his successful 2007 presidential campaign. Sarkozy is a close personal friend of Bolloré.
Havas is now owned by Vivendi which is just as well for Yannick whose position as CEO would surely have been under threat were it still a publicly listed marcoms firm. But Havas and owner Vivendi are now mired in this, almost as much as Bolloré Group. Bell Pottinger imploded as clients voted with their feet, terrified of being dragged into a political scandal.
French politics are never far away from business, here via the ever-controversial Sarkozy who still harbours presidential ambitions. But a formal indictment of Bolloré and his associates may never happen; the French legal system works in its own idiosyncratic way.
Key to it from a Havas perspective is Vivendi, a giant media group which owns Universal Music and Canal+ among others, and which is valued at around €20bn. Even though the Bollorés own more than 20 per cent with extra voting rights there are other big shareholders too. Power certainly but not completely bomb-proof either.