Fraudster who ousted Eurotunnel's board

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The Independent Online

Nicolas Miguet is a champion of the small man, a financial journalist, a populist politician, with links with the far right, a convicted fraudster and an indefatigible self-publicist. Yesterday, he scored the greatest triumph of his unlikely career: he led the disgruntled small-shareholders of Eurotunnel to victory and brought down the company's board.

His band of dissidents secured more than half the votes in the debt-choked company, and forced through a no-confidence vote in the management at the company's annual general meeting held at a conference centre north of Paris.

As a result, M.Miguet's allies are in a position to shape the future of the most important single transport link between Britain and the continent of Europe. The Channel Tunnel operator is struggling under more than €9bn (£5.9bn) of debt and sits on the verge of bankruptcy, but the British Government again made it clear yesterday that no state money would be made available.

The mood at the meeting was angry. The outgoing chairman, Charles Macka,y urged investors to calm down as they heckled the management, yelling "Hoodlums" and chanting support for M. Miguet.

The leader of the shareholder revolution was cheered, as he expected, when he entered the meeting. In a letter to Eurotunnel shareholders last week, he said: "When Nicolas Miguet enters the hall, give him a big ovation but shout, 'Thank you Nicolas" or, 'Thank you Nico'. Better not shout, 'Miguet for president'." By "president" he means president of France, not president of Eurotunnel.

M. Miguet runs a political party - the Rassemblement de Contribuables de France (Rally of French Taxpayers) - which. he predicts, will propel him into Jacques Chirac's place at the Elysée Palace in three years.

All over rural France, M. Miguet's earnest face shares top billing on the sides of old barns with peeling circus posters. His large, garish advertisements tell passers-by, "Call Nicolas Miguet, it's urgent" and give a telephone number. Only the tiniest of print tells you that your call will cost €1.35, then 34 cents per minute. M. Miguet's phone takings are believed to be the main source of a personal income which he himself puts at €1.1m (£725,000) a year.

If you call the pay-line, a cheerful, energetic voice gives advice on small investments, mingled with attacks on the "banksters", "gnomes" and "crooks" who, M. Miguet says, dominate the world of finance.

He drives a Maserati and lives in a converted mill in Normandy. He says he has no ambitions to be on the new Eurotunnel board because he is a journalist and politician, not a businessman. He does not draw say he is banned from running a business in France until the end of this year, as a result of a conviction for "bankruptcy, swindling and forgery".

Such is the fury of Eurotunnel's one million small shareholders in France at the collapse of their investments that many turn a blind eye to M. Miguet's past. He has persuaded them a new management will be able to force a writing-down of Eurotunnel's debt and force the train companies to pay more for using the tunnel, boosting earnings and therefore the share price.

His three business newspapers have kept up a constant barrage of wild accusations against the mainly British Eurotunnel management. In February, he was found guilty by a French court of libelling Richard Shirrefs, the Eurotunnel managing director, and was ordered to pay €10,000 in damages. M. Miguet also has several fraud convictions - and once served a four-week prison sentence - but most of the details are covered by an "amnesty" and cannot be described in the press under French law.

The son of a taxi-driver and a maths teacher from northern Normandy, M. Miguet is a graduate of the elite Parisian university Science-Po. His older brother, Philippe, is a a self-declared "monsigneur" and head of a small, fundamentalist, Catholic sect, which is not recognised by the Catholic Church. Nicolas Miguet calls himself a monarchist and a traditionalist Catholic.

But he also claimed to have had five children with four women. He has quarrelled with his religious brother after a business misunderstanding. He has also quarrelled with the far-right National Front, which describes him as "a predator".

His success, reminiscent of the Poujadiste small shopkeepers' movement of the 1950s, has been based on tapping the anger of small investors in France, many of whom are convinced that market and business dealings are rigged in favour of "the big man" and "international finance". His own motives in leading the crusade are unclear.

His company, reported to have amassed 7,000,000 Eurotunnel shares, stands to gain enormously if the Anglo-French company succeeds. But former associates suggest that his motivations are part financial and part political: to increase his own notoriety to help his presidential bid in 2007 and to encourage more people to call his pay-phone lines.

More of a mystery to French commentators is his de facto alliance with Jacques Maillot, a respected French businessman, who is candidate to chair Eurotunnel. "How long can two such men who are worlds apart work together?" the newspaper Le Monde asked yesterday.

ANGLO-FRENCH CO-OPERATION

Blue Streak

This was the name given to the 1950s ballistic missile system that was supposed to launch Britain and France into the arms race but failed - almost literally - to get off the ground. The De Havilland aircraft company won the contract to build the missile, powered by a Rolls Royce engine. With two such reputable names on board, both governments were confident of a return on their investment. But costs of the project spiralled from an initial estimate of £50m in 1955 to £300m in 1959. By this time, its deterrent effects were doubtful once its designers realised it took longer to prepare the land-based missile for take off than the warning time given of any incoming Russian attack. Blue Streak was successfully tested in Woomera, Australia, but never properly deployed and the project was finally cancelled in 1960.

Concorde

Britain and France were both working on developing a supersonic aircraft when they decided to join forces in 1962. Seven years of planning and prototypes followed before the familiar hook-nosed airliner took to the skies, but by the time it did, celebrations were tempered by the fact that everyone involved knew it would never make any money for its creators. The expense - around £1.3bn then - was so vast that the practice of throwing good money after bad became known in business circles as the "Concorde fallacy". It seemed as though there might be some hope of recouping part of that huge expense when 16 airlines expressed an interest in Concorde at the planning stages, but only two - Air France and British Airways - ever bought the aircraft ,spending about £200m at today's prices on the 20 Concordes that were built.

Channel Tunnel

In 1802, French engineer Albert Mathieu put together the first plan for a "tunnel sous la Manche". A year later an Englishman, Henri Mottray, came up with his own design. Another 191 years - and many more failed designs - passed before the two countries were joined beneath the Channel. Attempts to design a tunnel never got beyond the drawing board until the British Defence Ministry eventually relaxed its opposition to the scheme on military grounds in 1955 and a Channel Tunnel study group was formed. Europont, a bridge with three-mile long spans, Euroroute, another bridge resting on artificial islands, and the Channel Expressway, a combined road and rail tunnel, were all abandoned before the Eurotunnel plan was approved in 1985. Ever since the tunnel opened 10 years ago, late and over budget, many millions of pounds have disappeared down it.

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