Media mogul accused over `give-away'

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The Independent Online
The disclosure at the weekend that yet another leading French company director is under judicial examination for corruption might have been met with the standard sigh of despair from a public already deeply cynical about top businessmen's mores. That the director concerned should be Jean- Luc Lagardere and the company the defence and media giant Matra-Hachette, however, promises a public outcry and embarrassment for the government.

It is barely two weeks since the government announced the choice of Mr Lagardere and Matra to take over the public communications and technology company Thomson. The terms of the deal, under which Matra would acquire Thomson for a symbolic one franc and sell its subsidiary, Thomson Multimedia, on to the South Korean company, Daewoo, for a similar sum, infuriated public opinion and unleashed a torrent of often xenophobic fury against the "give-away" of French assets to foreigners. The government has been forced to concede a parliamentary debate before the decision is made final.

Into this mood of extreme hostility came the revelation that Matra's chairman, Mr Lagardere, had been placed under judicial investigation for corruption on 28 October, that is 12 days after the sale of Thomson was announced.

The details were published in Le Monde, which Mr Lagardere says he intends to sue. While the Matra chairman said the investigation related to a case brought by a shareholder in connection with the terms of the Matra takeover of the media company Hachette four years ago, Le Monde claimed that it includes false-accounting, fraud and abuse of public money.

A judicial investigation in France does not necessarily mean that charges will be laid, but it inevitably tarnishes the reputation of the person concerned, requires him to be questioned by a judge, and may entail "preventive custody" if a judge so rules.

The disclosure that Mr Lagardere is under investigation so soon after his company was chosen to buy Thomson is embarrassing enough for the government. But he is the second government-picked director to find himself in this position. The head of the national railway company, SNCF - Loik Le Floch-Pringent - had to resign this summer after only six months in office, after being placed under investigation and held in prison for alleged corruption while head of another nationalised company, Elf Aquitaine.

That case is still pending, as are corruption investigations into the activities of at least another dozen senior company directors, including those of Renault, Alcatel-Alsthom and one of the biggest lottery companies, Francaise des jeux.

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