French minister defends role amid wave of raids

29th June 2005, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, June 29 (AFP) - French Economy and Finance Minister Thierry Breton vigorously defended his reputation on Wednesday against a background of controversy following a wave of raids on his office and on three media groups.

PARIS, June 29 (AFP) - French Economy and Finance Minister Thierry Breton vigorously defended his reputation on Wednesday against a background of controversy following a wave of raids on his office and on three media groups.

Breton insisted that he had done nothing wrong while he was an administrator of the chemical group Rhodia, commenting on a police raid on his ministry's offices on Monday.

And he said that another raid on a television company over the sale of a subsidiary to Thomson Multimedia, which he had headed, was of a completely different nature as far as he was concerned.

A source close to the matter said on Wednesday that in all about 15 raids had been carried out by investigators and financial police in the space of 48 hours on Monday and Tuesday.

They covered the ministry, Breton's home, the offices of Rhodia, Vivendi Universal, the home of Vivendi's supervisory board chairman Rene Fourtou, the offices of Canal Plus television and of the Thomson group, the source said.

The Rhodia and Vivendi Universal investigations are separate, but the plaintiffs, those possibly implicated and an investigating magistrate are the same in both cases. The Vivendi case concerns a sale by its subsidiary Canal Plus pay television of Canal Plus Technologies to Thomson Multimedia in 2002.

Referring to Rhodia, Breton, who was an administrator of the company from 1998 to 2002 at a time when its accounts are alleged to have been inaccurate, told French radio Europe 1 that he had done nothing wrong.

He insisted that none of the information presented by the management or by auditors had "offended my sense of ethics, my rigour and my principles".

The minister played down any effect of the Rhodia raid on his authority, but voices in the Socialist opposition have argued that he has been weakened, must explain himself and, as finance minister, is in a conflict of interest.

Breton said that his ministerial office had been searched and his computer opened by an investigating magistrate, accompanied by police, during the raid on Monday.

Breton said that he had been "rather flabbergasted" when he had heard of the raid while he was in New York. Asked if he considered that he had been weakened by the operation, he replied that "I am fighting" and that "I have a firm hold on my ship".

Breton, an expert in reviving companies in difficulty, took office at the end of February, abandoning a severance package of EUR 2.35 million to leave his post as head of France Telecom.

He switched jobs at the request of the government to replace the previous finance minister who had been forced out of office after only three months amid controversy over lavish rent arrangements for his family.

He was appointed amid an extremely difficult period for France regarding the state of the economy and public finances, and is the fourth minister to head the pivotal finance ministry since the centre-right came to power in 2002.

Breton said there was no conflict of interest because he had no personal interest in the matters under investigation, adding that he hoped the magistrate had found enough during the raids "to realise that I have done absolutely nothing wrong in this business".

He said that members of the supervisory board of a company were not responsible for managing operations, and also observed that the interest in his connection with Rhodia had come to a head after he had been appointed finance minister.

Asked about a raid on Tuesday on the offices of Canal Plus, he said: "This is a completely different matter." He had no longer been at the head of Thomson Multimedia when the deal was concluded.

Breton also hit back at two shareholders in Rhodia whose allegations had sparked investigations into the company. These were French financier Hughes de Lasteyrie, and French banker Edouard Stern, found shot dead in his flat in Geneva at the end of February in circumstances believed to be connected to his private life.

Both men had lost money on investments in Rhodia, which came close to bankruptcy last year.

Breton said: "There are international financiers who specialise in investing in companies and trying to come out on top."

Copyright AFP

Subject: French news

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