Tuesday, February 27

Vincent Bolloré, an announced retirement and a difficult succession

The date was not chosen randomly. Vincent Bolloré had long ago announced that his retirement would coincide exactly with the 200th anniversary of the founding of the family business. True to his promise, on February 17, the celebration which marked the withdrawal of the French businessman, in the same Breton town that housed the first paper factory of the dynasty (OCB cigarette paper, by Odet-Cascadec-Bolloré, was one of its star products). More than 40 years have passed since he took the reins of the group in 1981. In a short time he managed to turn around a company on the verge of bankruptcy, then began to diversify and expand the business: towards transport and logistics in the 90s, to the advertising in the 2000s and to the media in the last decade.

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In that time, the Breton industrialist has built a reputation as a fearsome businessman: hostile takeover bids, stock market shocks and rivalries with the other great French businessmen, such as Martin Bouygues, Xavier Niel or Bernard Arnault. Often taking advantage of difficult successions in competition, such as that of Jean-Luc Lagardère, founder of the publishing house that still bears his name today. But, despite knowing the risks inherent in the transfer of powers, the patriarch of the Bolloré Group has announced his official withdrawal without designating a clear successor. He leaves his two main heirs, his sons Yannick and Cyrille, an ambiguous government, prone to disagreements.

Second of four brothers, Yannick Bolloré (42 years old) chairs the board of directors of the media giant Vivendi (owner of Canal+, Havas and Editis) and controls 29.5% of all the group’s companies. His younger brother, Cyrille (36 years old), is CEO of the Bolloré Group and is in charge of managing the logistics subsidiaries at an international level, including businesses related to oil transportation. As an added complexity, the children also inherit the Byzantine structure of the Bolloré empire, based on a particular system (baptized by himself as “Breton pulleys”), a complex tangle of companies that allows the family to have control of many assets with minority percentages.

Officially, Vincent Bolloré left all operational functions in 2018, following his indictment in various corruption cases linked to his business in West Africa. Since then he has only held a simple seat on Vivendi’s board of directors, although he is credited with actual control of the family business. In France, experts doubt that the announcement of his withdrawal will really change the dynamic. “It is impossible to know when he will decide to withdraw completely,” a source from the group told AFP. “And, even if he does, he will always remain in control of the Compagnie de l’Odet (the holding company that is at the core of the family empire).”

One of the novelties is the arrival on the scene a few days ago of the eldest of his sons, Sébastien Bolloré (44 years old), who assumes an operational role in the holding company for the first time when he is appointed deputy general manager. Until now he had stayed away from the family orbit. He studied in California, lived in Australia until recently and had a position of responsibility in the development of R&D in new technologies within the group. For her part, the youngest daughter, Marie, is president of the Foundation of the 2nd chancea charity linked to family businesses, after having gone through the subsidiary of electric batteries and the management of the shared electric car service in Paris, Autolib, which ended in a confrontation with the city council of the capital.

Exit from Africa and absorption of Lagardère

Bolloré’s withdrawal comes at a particularly delicate moment, due to several of the difficult projects in which the group is immersed. One of the main ones is the absorption of the Lagardère group. The sudden death of Jean-Luc Lagardère in 2003 left his son Arnaud – who at that time lived in the US outside of the management of the family business – at the helm. An erratic management, a succession of bad decisions and the effects of the crisis forced the publishing giant to divest itself of several of its subsidiaries. Bolloré has been the great beneficiary of this decline, which he has used to expand his media empire: he has taken control of the Hachette publishing house, of the influential publications Le Journal du dimanche and paris match and one of the main radio stations in France, Europe 1which has become a complement to its television channel CNews, the French equivalent of FoxNews.

In addition, Vivendi is waging a battle to prevent the US investment fund KKR from taking a majority stake in Telecom Italia (of which the Bolloré subsidiary is the main shareholder). It is also trying to convince the Ministry of Industry, Commerce and Tourism in Spain to increase its stake in Prisa to 29.9%, compared to the current 9.9%. Another fundamental issue is the sale of the logistics branch of the group in Africa, one of the engines of the family company for decades, undermined by various legal problems.

In fact, the signing of an exclusive agreement to transfer part of the subsidiary on the African continent to the Italian-Swiss shipowner MSC took place last December. A few months earlier Vincent Bolloré had pleaded guilty to active bribery and complicity in breach of trust in Togo. Togolese President Faure Gnassingbé would have benefited from the services of the Havas agency during his campaign in exchange for several port concessions. To close the matter, Bolloré agreed to pay a fine of 375,000 euros, with a sentence that would not be recorded in his criminal record in France. However, a Paris court refused to uphold the decision, saying another trial should be held in France.

“reactionary ideology”

According to the newspaper Le Monde, the judicial decision marked a break between the businessman and the political power. His relations with Emmanuel Macron are especially bad and the launch of the candidacy of Éric Zemmour (Cnews star talk show host) would be, at least in part, motivated by this confrontation with the current president. With the Canal+ group under his control, in addition to Europe 1 and several large newspaper headlines, Bolloré’s media influence is worrying, especially a few weeks before the presidential election.

A commission of inquiry recently launched by the French Senate to shed light on media concentration directly pointed to this influence. And last week, a group called Stop Bollore, made up of trade unions, associations, the media and personalities from the left, launched an appeal to denounce the creation of a “tentacular media empire” accused of serving a “reactionary ideology”.

The collective targeted CNews in particular, which it accused of fueling “the obsession with extreme right-wing issues”, omnipresent in its gatherings. An accusation repeated by the senators, who summoned Bolloré (and other big media businessmen) to a series of public hearings. “Our interest is not political or ideological, it is purely economic,” the Breton industrialist replied.