A Tangled Web: More on Saddam’s Money in France and American Publishing

On closer inspection, the story of Saddam’s Hussein’s financial holdings in France is full of perverse twists and interconnections that cast many aspects of the run-up and aftermath of the Iraq War in a new light. The fact that a front company of the late Iraqi dictator should own a major stake in the publisher of the sneeringly titled “I am America (And So Can You!)” by Stephen Colbert — a comic who made his name, after all, by mocking President Bush and, notably, the latter’s decision to invade Iraq — is only the most glaring of them.

As noted in my earlier post on “Saddam’s Money in France,” according to the French daily Le Figaro, the Saddam front company, Montana Management, is supposed to have held 8.4 percent of the shares of the French book publisher Hachette: a subsidiary of the Groupe Lagardère, which in 2006 took over the American publisher Time Warner Books.

Four years earlier, in 2002, Lagardère vastly expanded its publishing holdings in its home market by purchasing Vivendi Universal Publishing (VUP): at the time the leading publisher in France, whereas Hachette was number two. As discussed here in an excellent account by French publishing insider Jean Rosenthal (no relation to the present author), the combined publishing assets of VUP and Hachette threatened to create a virtual monopoly on the French market. Ironically, in light of Lagardère’s purchase of Warner Books four years later, this “Franco-French” monopolistic solution was preferred by French authorities in order to “save” VUP from falling into the hands of any number of American financial investors that had expressed interest. Then-French-President Jacques Chirac — a self-declared “dear friend” of Saddam Hussein, as he put it in a 1987 letter touched upon in this previous WPR report — is supposed to have intervened personally in order to convince Vivendi Universal to accept the offer of Lagardère chief Jean-Luc Lagardère. “Lagardère rode in on his white horse,” Jean Rosenthal comments, “with aerospace connections to the French administration and a chummy relationship with President Chirac.”

Aeronautics and defense is the other main pillar of the Lagardère empire. In 1999, the Lagardère subsidiary Matra would be fused with the state-owned aeronautics firm Aérospatiale to form Aérospatiale Matra. Just one year later, the two partners — Lagardère and the French state — would together constitute the “French pole” of the newly created Franco-German aeronautics and defense consortium EADS, with each party controlling 15 percent of the capital of the new entity. (In the meanwhile, Lagardère has reduced its share to 7.5 percent.) The Saddam front company Montana Management is supposed to have held 2.5 percent of the capital of Matra.

In September 2003, following the invasion of Iraq and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, the Polish army reported finding French-made Roland-3 anti-aircraft missiles in Iraq — a report that was predictably dismissed as unfounded by the French government. “It is not the first time Polish troops found ammunition in Iraq,” a Polish Ministry of Defense spokesman was quoted as saying at the time, “but to our surprise, these missiles were produced in 2003.” As so happens, the Roland anti-aircraft missile is manufactured by the “Euromissile” subsidiary of EADS: a joint venture co-founded, along with the German firm DASA, by none other than Aérospatiale Matra.