French ex-foreign minister faces grilling in Lafarge Syria probe

2 min

Paris (AFP)

The anti-corruption association Sherpa called Friday for former French foreign minister Laurent Fabius to be questioned over payments made by cement maker Lafarge to the Islamic State group through a Syrian middleman.

Sherpa is one of 12 civil plaintiffs in a case against Lafarge over payments it made to IS and other armed groups to keep its Syrian operations running during the country's civil war.

Lafarge stayed on in Syria for two years after most French companies had left. IS eventually took over its northern Jalabiya plant in September 2014.

To ensure protection of its staff between 2013 and 2014, Lafarge Cement Syria (LCS) paid between $80,000 and $100,000 a month to various armed groups, including $20,000 to IS, according to a source close to the year-old investigation.

A senior Lafarge official told investigators the company had the blessing of the government of Socialist then-president Francois Hollande to stay on in the war-torn country.

"The foreign ministry told us that we should hold on, that things would work out," former deputy COO Christian Herrault said. "We would see the French ambassador to Syria every six months and no one told us 'now you have to leave'."

On Friday, Sherpa confirmed that it had asked investigating magistrates to question Fabius and two former ambassadors to Syria, Eric Chevallier and Franck Gellet, over the affair.

"It is imperative to look at all those who might be responsible if the state was indeed implicated in this affair," said Marie-Laure Guislain of Sherpa.

Lafarge's bosses in Paris are suspected of having approved payments by LCS to jihadist groups through the use of false accounting documents.

The funds went through a Syrian businessman.

The investigators have heard from four former Syrian employees, one of whom described the pressure local staff came under to remain on the job long after expatriate staff had fled, a source close to the probe told AFP.

A total of 11 Syrian employees have joined the case as plaintiffs.

Lafarge, which is now part of the Franco-Swiss group LafargeHolcim, has admitted to "unacceptable mistakes committed in Syria".