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French businessman Tapie on trial over huge Sarkozy-era payout

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Flamboyant French businessman Bernard Tapie went on trial Monday accused of defrauding the state of nearly half a billion euros with a massive 2008 arbitration award that landed IMF chief Christine Lagarde in hot water.

[PARIS] Flamboyant French businessman Bernard Tapie went on trial Monday accused of defrauding the state of nearly half a billion euros with a massive 2008 arbitration award that landed IMF chief Christine Lagarde in hot water.

The 76-year-old former Socialist minister, who rose from humble beginnings to build up a sporting and media empire that once included the Olympique de Marseille (OM) football club, is one of six people on trial in the latest chapter of a two-decade legal saga that has ensnared a slew of senior officials, including ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy.

It centres on a payment of 404 million euros (S$616.2 million) awarded to Tapie by an arbitration panel to settle a dispute over the state's sale of Adidas, the German sporting goods company which Tapie briefly owned.

The amount of the award sent shockwaves through France but Lagarde, France's economy minister at the time, decided not to appeal it - a decision for which she was found guilty of negligence by a court that hears cases of alleged wrongdoing by government ministers.

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Her handling of the case sparked suspicion that her former boss Sarkozy, whom Tapie had backed for president in 2007, was favourably disposed towards the businessman - allegations Sarkozy has vehemently denied.

In 2017, a court ordered Tapie to pay back the money after finding the settlement to be fraudulent.

But the case against the tycoon himself has only now come to trial.

SELF-DESCRIBED 'ACTOR' 

In court on Monday, Tapie appeared smiling and confident, dressed in a dark blue suit.

When asked to give his profession, he describe himself as an actor - he has appeared in films and theatre productions in recent years.

He made regular asides to one of his co-defendants during the hearing, and even improvised a press conferences during a suspension of the proceedings.

Over the next four weeks Tapie, his former lawyer Maurice Lantourne and one of the three adjudicators behind the payout, Pierre Estoup, will defend themselves against charges that they connived to rig the arbitration process in the businessman's favour.

Three others - Stephane Richard, Lagarde's former chief of staff in the economy ministry and now head of telecoms group Orange, and two senior civil servants - are accused of complicity in the fraud for having argued in favour of referring the case to arbitration.

Tapie, who has bounced back from a raft of previous setbacks, including a conviction for match-fixing during his time as owner of OM, has vowed to clear his name.

"I never obtained any legal decision through fraud," the combative owner of La Provence newspaper, who is suffering from stomach cancer, told the Journal du Dimanche newspaper over the weekend.

Tapie made a fortune in the early part of his career by taking over failing companies.

He flaunted his wealth, buying a vast Paris townhouse and a 72m yacht.

He also splashed out on a cycling team, and on Olympique de Marseille which he guided to five successive league triumphs and the 1993 Champions League title.

But things began to unravel for the father of four in the 1990s.

He served six months in prison in 1997 for match-fixing and his business empire later collapsed.

He was able to repay his debts after the arbitrators ruled he had been the victim of fraud when he sold Adidas in 1993, and soon bought another yacht, which he named "Reborn".

But the cancellation of the payment in 2017 left him high and dry again.

On Monday, lawyers for Tapie and Lantourne argued for the case against them to be thrown out, on the grounds that they were being prosecuted for actions for which they were never charged.

The court will rule on that question on Tuesday.

AFP