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French protest at mogul's arrest

THIRTY-FIVE French industrialists and financiers and a former prime minister yesterday published a message of support for the head of the Groupe Schneider conglomerate who was unexpectedly held in a Belgian jail on Friday.

Didier Pineau-Valencienne went to Belgium of his own accord to answer questions on two Belgian subsidiaries, and was charged with embezzlement and fraud. He was detained in Brussels' Forest prison until Wednesday to enable investigators to question him.

The move sent shock-waves round the French business world and reportedly prompted a phone call from Edouard Balladur, the Gaullist Prime Minister, to Jean- Luc Dehaene, his Belgian counterpart. Mr Pineau-Valencienne, 64, has run Schneider, whose activities range from shipyards to winter sports gear, since 1981.

The affair concerned the 1992 takeover of two Belgian companies, Cofimines and Cofibel, part of the once mighty Empain empire. Last year, 200 small shareholders started a civil case against Schneider for under-valuing the companies' shares. In December, Schneider agreed to increase the sum it had paid. According to the Journal du Dimanche, the Belgian investigators' real interest centres on Fimo AG, an Italian-Swiss company which entered the subsidiaries' capital at the time of the Schneider takeover. Fimo AG has figured in Italian investigations into Mafia money-laundering.

In the Journal du Dimanche, Edith Cresson, who was the Socialist prime minister from 1991 to 1992, was among signatories of a message of support for Mr Pineau- Valencienne who assured him of their 'respect and trust'.

Describing him as 'extremely respectable', Mrs Cresson, who worked for Schneider in the 1980s, said Mr Pineau-Valencienne was a man 'of many qualities . . . a man with a great sense of duty.'

The daily Le Monde raised the prospect that, after a decade in which politicians' financial affairs had been laid bare in France, it might now be the turn of the business establishment.