Canadian billionaire Paul Desmarais Jr.’s phone was tapped and he was interviewed by Belgian police late last year in connection with an investigation of the French concrete company LafargeHolcim and a facility in Syria, according to the French newspaper Le Monde.
Lafarge owned a concrete plant in northern Syria that has operated during the civil war there. Human rights lawyers in Paris last December said Lafarge paid about 13 million euros to armed groups from 2011 through 2015 to keep the plant running, according to a Reuters report. The lawyers said the Islamic State received some of the money. The lawyers spoke at a news conference as part of French prosecutors’ inquiry into Lafarge and the “financing of a terrorist enterprise.” The inquiry began in mid-2017, and former Lafarge executives have since been charged.
In a statement to The Globe, Power Corp. said Mr. Desmarais “was not aware of the matters being investigated, neither as a Director of Lafarge or otherwise, until they were made public in 2016. Mr. Desmarais will continue to offer his full cooperation as part of this ongoing investigation.”
This week’s Le Monde story looks at the role of Groupe Bruxelles Lambert (GBL), which the Desmarais family partly controls through a series of holding companies. In GBL, the Desmarais family works with the billionaire Frere family, the richest family in Belgium. GBL owned about 20 per cent of Lafarge during the time period in question. (Lafarge became LafargeHolcim in 2015, after a merger with a Swiss firm, and GBL now owns 9.4 per cent of what is the world’s largest cement maker.)
Le Monde first broke the Lafarge-Syria story in 2016. This week, the paper said the French judiciary is wondering about the role of GBL. Le Monde reported that Belgian police searched GBL headquarters last November, and then on Dec. 13 interviewed four GBL officials, including Gerald Frere, the chairman, and Mr. Desmarais, who has been on Lafarge’s board of directors since 2008. Mr. Desmarais is chairman and co-CEO of Power Corp.
Le Monde said that GBL officials all told Belgian police the firm’s investment in Lafarge was strictly financial and no information regarding the cement maker’s actions in Syria had been raised.
The newspaper also said the officials’ phones were tapped in the month before they were interviewed. The newspaper said the information from those calls acquired by Belgian police did not contradict GBL’s stand that its officials were unaware of Lafarge’s actions in Syria and that GBL’s investment in Lafarge was hands-off.