Saddam’s Money in France — and in American Publishing?

In an article that appeared last month (Dec. 21) in the daily Le Figaro, French journalist George Malbrunot reports that the French government is continuing to resist Iraqi efforts to recover the financial assets of Saddam Hussein in France. According to Malbrunot’s report, some €23.48 million of Saddam’s money remains blocked in French banks. (The original report placed the money in the Banque de France: a claim that has since been denied by the French national bank.) France would thus be in violation of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1483 of May 22, 2003, which requires that the financial assets of the deposed Iraqi dictator held in foreign accounts be “immediately” transferred to a Development Fund for Iraq under the control of the Iraqi Central Bank. “France is one of the last countries in the world not to have done so,” notes an unnamed Iraqi diplomat cited by Le Figaro, who accuses former French President Jacques Chirac of “bad faith” in the matter. A villa valued at some €12 million near the French resort of Cannes, on the other hand, was recently turned over to Iraq — though only thanks to the intervention of the Swiss government, which seized the title from a Swiss trust in whose name it was being held.

But perhaps the most startling revelation in the Malbrunot piece — and the most relevant for American readers — concerns the extent of Saddam’s corporate holdings in France and, notably, in French publishing. Malbrunot writes:

Apart from the villa in Cannes and the assets frozen at the Banque de France, the Iraq of Saddam Hussein held shares in French companies via offshore corporations, based, notably, in Switzerland and Panama. One of these front corporations, Montana Management, held 8.4 percent of [the French publishing house] Hachette and 2.5 percent of [the French aeronautics and defense firm] Matra, prior to their fusion in Lagardère. The value of these shares is today estimated to be around €200 million. The former owner, Khalaf al-Dulaymi, a former Baath Party official close to Saddam Hussein, is supposed to have taken refuge in Jordan. . . . . Iraqi lawyers have demanded the seizure of the property of Dulaymi, who also possessed another front corporation named Midco, but Dulaymi has opposed the move.

Aérospatiale Matra was one of the founding members of the Franco-German aeronautics and defense consortium EADS, some 7.5 percent of whose shares continue to be controlled by Matra’s parent company, the Groupe Lagardère. The French publishing giant Hachette is likewise part of the Lagardère Group. In 2006, Hachette purchased Time Warner Books, thus becoming a major player also in American book publishing. Under its “Grand Central” imprint, the Hachette Book Group USA is the publisher, for instance, of comic Stephen Colbert’s “I am America (And So Can You!).”

The Figaro report is ambiguous — or perhaps coy — concerning whether Khalaf al-Dulaymi continues to own the cited shares in Lagardère.

[Correction: In the original version of this post, I mentioned that Khalaf al-Dulaymi’s name had been removed by the European Commissionfrom a list of persons whose financial assets were supposed to be frozen. In fact, al-Dulaymi’s name was removed from one list and added to another: his assets are still supposed to be frozen.]

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