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In Cahoots With Ben Ali? Tunisia Corruption Probe Eyes French Firms

Anti-corruption officials in Tunisia are looking into French companies linked, willingly or not, with the clan of ousted President Ben Ali.

Carrefour megastore in Tunis
Carrefour megastore in Tunis
Nathalie Funès

TUNIS - On the Bizerte road in the outskirts of Tunis, the burnt-out skeleton of the Géant Casino supermarket smolders in the sun. After the fall of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, it was one of scores of shops, banks, factories and businesses that were attacked, burned, trashed and plundered.

The vandals vented their anger mostly on properties belonging to the dictator's hated family. But investigations have also been digging up dirt on French-owned companies. The money they earned in Tunisia smells of institutionalized corruption. Nearly every day the Tunisian press uncovers a new case, with stories of rigged bidding, shareholders fired by the family, backroom privatizations and unsecured bank loans (the Tunisian central bank now says 1.2 billion euros were accorded to businesses held by the family in this way).

The new government has launched a clean-up, beginning at the end of February when a first decree listed 110 family members, including children, cousins and nephews, whose assets were to be confiscated and administered by a public entity. In mid March, a second decree set up a commission tasked with managing these frozen assets and sealing their fate: nationalization, sale or flotation on the stock exchange.

Under scrutiny are about 20 French companies linked with the families of Ben Ali and his wife Leïla Trabelsi. The firms may wind up having to face their day in court, depending on the outcome of inquiries by the commission charged with rooting out corruption and financial malfeasance.

Orange Tunisie, the Tunisian affiliate of France Telecom, had as majority stakeholder Marwan Mabrouk, husband of one of Mr Ben Ali's five daughters. Carrefour megastores in Tunisia were linked with the autocrat's son-in-law Slim Chiboub, while the advertising agency Harras has ties with Slim Zarrouk, another son-in-law.

The list goes on: Peugeot has links to Mehdi ben Gaïed, boyfriend of Mr Ben Ali's fourth daughter; and the French home improvement specialists Bricorama had dealings with Imed Trabelsi, Leïla's nephew. Faouzi Mahbouli, Bricorama's initial partner, later kicked out by the family, has filed several complaints, some against the French firm. "All the family's assets taken over by the state will remain so at least until elections in July," predicts a French diplomat posted in Tunis.

The case of Orange Tunisie is undoubtedly the one most cited in the local press. In June 2009, the company of Marwan Mabrouk and his wife Cyrine Ben Ali (Investec), in association with Orange, won the bid for the third mobile phone network in Tunisia. The two finalists in the tailor-made call for tenders were both son-in-laws of the ousted leader.

"Everyone knew, these past years, that calls for tender in Tunisia were rigged, that it was impossible to do business without having links with the clan," said a French businessman in North Africa. "We were candidates in the privatization of an importing company, our application was flawless. But in the end, the government added an extra procedure to eliminate our dossier."

As soon as he had won the bid for the telephone network, Marwan Mabrouk was named president of the board of directors of Orange Tunisie. But since Mr Ben Ali's fall, Mr Mabrouk has stepped back from company dealings. His wife, from whom he is seeking a divorce, is under house arrest in Carthage. And the anti-corruption commission has twice called on him for explanations, notably on interest-free bank loans obtained from institutions controlled by the regime. According to the Tunisian central bank, Orange Tunisie is one of the top four companies in the country to have benefited from this type of funding. The Tunisian state now holds 51% of the affiliate.

As far as the French mother company is concerned, all is well. "We've had an audit of the tendering procedures carried out by our in-house financial and legal advisers," stated Stéphane Richard, CEO of France Télécom-Orange. "We found nothing abnormal at any point. We are serene about this issue."

Photo - D@LY3D

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