France's successful bid for the 2023 Rugby World Cup, beating off competition from Ireland and South Africa, is understood to be part of the investigation by French financial police which led to the FFR president Bernard Laporte being called into their Parisian offices for questioning earlier on Tuesday.
In a development that has sent shockwaves through the global game and French rugby especially, Laporte is under investigation for his links with the Altrad group, whose boss, Mohed Altrad, was also called in for questioning, along with Claude Atcher, who led the bid for the 2023 World Cup, and two senior officials of the federation, vice-president Serge Simon and Nicolas Hourquet, the FFR's head of international relations.
All five presented themselves to the offices of the Brigade for the Repression of Economic Delinquency (BRDE) to which the all-powerful National Financial Prosecutor’s Office (PNF) entrusted the investigation in 2017. They were all detained overnight, so far without charge.
This emanated from suspicions that Laporte had intervened in favour of Montpellier Hérault Rugby with the FFR’s appeal committee to reduce sanctions against the club in June 2017. Altrad is both president of Montpellier and the main jersey sponsor of the French national team.
The club were sanctioned with a fine of €70,000 and ordered to play one match behind closed doors after supporters waved banners hostile to the Ligue Nationale de Rugby.
The ministry of sports established that the decisions of the LNR commission were “modified” between June 29th and 30th 2017, to a fine of €20,000 and a deferral of the match behind closed doors.
Three months earlier, the Altrad group, which specialises in building materials, had become the primary sponsor of the French jersey, before subsequently supporting the French candidacy, ultimately victorious, to host 2023 World Cup.
Laporte did later admit to telephoning the chairman of the disciplinary commission, Jean-Daniel Simonet, but maintained he had simply wished to “give him a political light” on the tensions in rugby.
In May 2019, during Laporte’s unsuccesful defamation lawsuit against the newspaper L’Equipe, lawyer Philippe Peyramaure, one of the three members of the disciplinary committee who sanctioned Montpellier, revealed that Simonet had called him on the morning of June 30th to tell him about the phone call from a “not happy” Laporte.
Laporte, said Peyramaure, “had told him, rather brutally, that Altrad was an important sponsor of the France team” as well as an important supporter of France’s bid for the 2023 Rugby World Cup, and that it was necessary to reduce the sanctions against Montpellier.
The investigation into the links between Laporte and Altrad has been initiated by the French minister of sports, Laura Flessel, in August 2017, and in January 2018, at the request of the PNF, the BRDE searched the headquarters of the FFR in Marcoussis. Laporte’s home was also searched.
Laporte, who coached France from 2000 to 2007, himself served as secretary of state for sports under Nicolas Sarkozy from 2007 to 2009.
Tuesday’s questioning of Laporte comes just 10 days before the election for president of the FFR, in which he is seeking a second term. His main oppoinent is Florian Grill, who has the support of three former French captains, Serge Blanco, Abdelati Benazzi and Fabien Pelouos among many other illustrious names. Laporte’s lawyer, Jean-Pierre Versini-Campinchi, has described the timing of today’s events as “deplorable”.
These developments could hamper Laporte’s campaign or, if he is charged with any wrongdoing, potentially even de-rail his candidature.
Pending his appearance at the BRDE’s offices in Paris, Laporte issued a lengthy statement to the 1,800 club presidents whose votes will decide the FFR presidential elections.
“Obviously I am angry. Not for myself, because I have nothing to reproach myself with, but for you leaders of volunteer clubs. They are trying by incredible means to steal this election from you, to steal your vote for which I fought. This timetable is appalling and unworthy of the functioning of an enlightened democracy. I say it loud and clear: we will fight, resist, and revolt,” wrote Laporte, who vowed that he would win on October 3rd.
Earlier this year Laporte was also elected, unopposed, as vice-chairman of World Rugby, who will be watching on with interest and perhaps even a little dread.
As well as the so-called ‘Altrad Affair’, last month the satirical weekly newspaper Le Canard Enchaîné claimed that the BRDE’s investigations included France’s successful 2023 World Cup bid ahead of South Africa and Ireland.