Belgian case adds to heat on French business

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WHEN Didier Pineau- Valencienne, a top French industrialist, was put in a Belgian jail, the chairmen of several companies rallied round in public support.

Mr Pineau-Valencienne, former head of the shipyards-to-sports- equipment Schneider group (unrelated to the fugitive German property tycoon) was charged on Friday with forgery, fraud and embezzlement in a case involving Belgian subsidiaries. Yesterday, a Brussels court ruled he should stay in jail for an inquiry reported to involve Mafia money-laundering.

Among the 36 business leaders who signed the letter of support was Pierre Suard, the chairman of Alcatel-Alsthom.

These are hard days for him, too. Alcatel is under scrutiny for allegedly over-charging the state for telephone equipment. Two executives have already been arrested and there have been reports, denied by Mr Suard, that he had used company funds to pay for a security system at his home.

The day after the letter supporting the Schneider chairman appeared, another prominent French businessman was in trouble. Pierre Berge, a close friend of President Francois Mitterrand, was charged with insider trading during his time as head of Yves Saint Laurent.

Mr Berge had already been fined by the Paris Bourse regulatory authority for selling 120,000 shares in July 1992 on his own behalf and for Yves Saint Laurent through Swiss banks shortly before the company published half- yearly losses of Fr26.8m ( pounds 3.2m).

In the last months of the Socialist government, which lost office in March 1993, Mr Berge remarked that there was one minister with whom 'I could not shake hands'.

He was referring to Bernard Tapie, then minister for towns. Mr Tapie, with a string of investigations into his business affairs, is leading a centre-left list for the European Parliament elections on 12 June. On 13 June, the National Assembly will examine two requests to lift his parliamentary immunity so additional charges can be lodged. If that is delayed beyond 19 July, the day the European Parliament session begins, he could benefit from extra immunity.

The tough-talking, self-made Mr Tapie is an outsider in French business. Most top industrialists are from the same mould as the politicians. Their careers took off when they were admitted to the grandes ecoles and often straddle public service and business.

An example of the cross-over is Jacques Friedmann who said he was 'profoundly indignant' at Mr Pineau-Valencienne's arrest.

As a senior Finance Ministry official, Mr Friedmann flew to La Paz in the early 1980s to settle the debts of Klaus Barbie, the Nazi 'butcher of Lyons', allowing the Bolivian government to extradite him to face trial. Mr Friedmann became chairman of Air France and now heads the newly privatised UAP insurance company.

It is this milieu which is now under the spotlight and Mr Pineau-Valencienne and Mr Suard are not the only moguls in trouble.

Renaud Van Ruymbeke, an anti- corruption magistrate, has alleged that Generale des Eaux gave funds to the Parti Republicain, after a subsidiary won a lucrative government contract. That affair touches on Gerard Longuet, the Industry Minister and party president.