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The billionaire ‘man of influence’ drawn into Fillon scandal

Marc Ladreit de Lacharrière
Jacques Witt | Sipa USA | AP
Marc Ladreit de Lacharrière

When Orange, France's state-backed telecoms operator, was in the final stages of selling its Dailymotion video platform to a Hong Kong buyer two years ago, the deal was derailed at the eleventh hour by a well-connected billionaire.

Marc Ladreit de Lacharrière had a word with his close friend François Hollande, the French president, and convinced him that a French buyer ought to have the chance to bid.

Sure enough, France's equivalent of YouTube was bought by Vivendi, the telecoms and entertainment group controlled by another of Mr de Lacharrière's friends, Vincent Bolloré.

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It was a telling reminder of the porous boundary that separates France's business and political elites.

Now, the 76-year-old Mr de Lacharrière has been reluctantly drawn into another example, courtesy of another political friend — the centre-right presidential candidate François Fillon.

Mr Fillon is being formally investigated for possible embezzlement over allegations that he used state money to give his wife and family fake jobs. He is also facing the more serious charge of influence peddling.

Among the revelations in the wake of the initial allegation has been that Mr de Lacharrière made an undisclosed and interest-free loan of €50,000 to Mr Fillon four years ago, while La Revue des Deux Mondes, a literary review owned by Mr de Lacharrière's holding company Fimalac, employed Mr Fillon's wife Penelope as an "informal strategy consultant", and paid her €100,000 for the work over 20 months between 2012 and 2013. On Tuesday, Mrs Fillon was placed under formal investigation over corruption charges.

Speaking from his offices near the Musée d'Orsay, in Paris's Saint Germain district, Mr de Lacharrière brushes off the significance of his loan to Mr Fillon, a friend for three decades, saying it is "only a subject because we're in the middle of an electoral campaign".

He adds: "I have always had the reputation of a generous man. I have never refused a loan to anybody." Asking for interest on the loan is not his style: "It is not me, especially when in every newspaper I'm regarded as a billionaire." He says that employing Mrs Fillon was a favour.

There is a further link between the two men: it was Mr Fillon who, in 2010, recommended that Mr de Lacharrière be decorated with the grand-croix de la Légion d'honneur, France's highest honour.

The award raised some eyebrows. "Was his service to the country at the level to deserve this?" muses one long-term acquaintance. "It wasn't scandalous but it was certainly seen as a bit exaggerated."

Mr de Lacharrière, from an aristocratic family in the southern Ardèche region, is deeply embedded in the elite: he boasts an enviable address book and is a member of Le Siècle, a bipartisan social club, and of the Bilderberg group, whose chairman Henri de Castries is a senior adviser to Mr Fillon.

"Over the past two decades Marc has become the quintessential man of influence in France," says Ezra Suleiman, a professor of social sciences at Princeton University.

He has been close to socialist politicians, including Mr Hollande and late president François Mitterrand, as well as to Gaullists such as Mr Fillon or ex-president Jacques Chirac. Mr de Lacharrière says: "I've never been close to one politician to serve my business life. I'm a true independent man."

His success is built on three pillars. He trained at the École Nationale d'Administration, the finishing school for the elite. But then he took the unconventional path of running his own business, rather than becoming a civil servant like most of his contemporaries. Lastly, he used the wealth he accumulated to play a prominent role in the arts, media and politics.

ENA contemporaries included Jacques Attali, later a special adviser to President Mitterrand, and the late Philippe Séguin, Gaullist minister and mentor to Mr Fillon, who introduced Mr Fillon to Mr de Lacharrière.

After ENA, Mr de Lacharrière set up the journal Mademoiselle and later joined the cosmetics group L'Oréal.

His connections with government came in handy. When President Mitterrand introduced a wealth tax in 1982, Mr de Lacharrière, by then L'Oréal's chief financial officer, negotiated with tax authorities to help the group's main shareholder, the Bettencourt family, and others in the same situation to reduce their tax bills. Mr de Lacharrière says this was "nothing extraordinary" and "only logical".

Although mooted as a potential chief executive, Mr de Lacharrière lost out on the top job at L'Oréal. He left in 2001 to set up Fimalac, which has interests in property, online media and entertainment and recorded revenues of €245m in 2016.

Underpinning Mr de Lacharrière's fortune is Fimalac's investment in Fitch Ratings, the agency bought in 1998. Fimalac sold a 30 per cent stake in the business to Hearst, the US media conglomerate, for $2bn in 2014.

"From day one Marc has been an entrepreneur," says Maurice Lévy, chairman of advertising and media group Publicis. "He's picked the right investments in areas that were mainly niche."

Mr de Lacharrière has used his considerable wealth ($2.4bn, according to Forbes) to play an active philanthropic role, including through his own foundation he created a decade ago.

"Marc is a smart guy," says Gérard Mestrallet, chairman of utility company Engie. "He's innovative in the world of finance and willing to be useful in society and the cultural field."

Where other successful French businessmen have been born into family fortunes, Mr de Lacharrière says he is a "very original case". He is proud that he has built his empire from scratch.

"I have been successful thanks to my own ideas and not because of the help coming from my friends. I did not go through the system. I never was with some politician who helped me through my career. I'm not an heir," he says.

For Mr Fillon, however, it is the help of his friends such as Mr de Lacharrière that could be his political undoing.