· Published in Know your Billionaires!

Iskandar Safa, a portfolio ranging from naval vessels to far-right media outlets

Among the French billionaires that own certain French media outlets, there are the well-known names – Arnault, Bolloré and Niel – and the less well-known such as Iskandar Safa. The Franco-Lebanese man, who comes from a Lebanese Christian background, is one of France’s wealthiest men and owns the conservative far-right weekly Valeurs actuelles. In 2019 he also attempted to acquire the regional daily newspaper Nice-Matin, but in the end opted out of the negotiations.

Iskandar Safa owns several shipyards in France, Germany and Abu Dhabi, where luxury yachts and small naval vessels are built. In 2015, he acquired the French magazine Valeurs actuelles (previously owned by pharmaceutical company Pierre Fabre) teaming up with Étienne Mougeotte and Charles Villeneuve, both coming from the French TV channel TF1.

The magazine Valeurs actuelles has a weekly print run of 90,000, not a bad readership for a French weekly. It unashamedly leans to the far-right in terms of content. “France: a Christian Country”, and “The Man Shaking up France” are notable headlines. The “man” in question just so happens to be former Italian far-right Minister of the Interior, Matteo Salvini, also claimed to be one of “The New Faces of the People’s Rebellion” along with Viktor Orban, the Hungarian Prime Minister.

The magazine is also happy to attack feminists (“The Feminist Wave of Terror” was the title of a cover in May 2019) and ecologists (“The Fakes Posing as Ecologists” - June 2019). The magazine is particularly fixated on stigmatising the Islamic community, (“Drive Out Christians, All We’ll Have Left is Islamists”, “15,000 Extremists Living Just Around the Corner”) and “Immigrants” (apparently “Stealing French jobs”).

In terms of the political networking going on behind the scenes, the magazine’s publishers are Valmonde, with vice-chairman Olivier Dassault (Serge Dassault’s son) at the helm since 2010. His father was a senator and Olivier Dassault has been an almost constant member of Parliament (LR) since 1988, and chairs the supervisory board of Dassault group, which produces military aircraft such as the Rafales, sold in Egypt, Qatar and India – as well as military defence systems.

Military equipment sold to Saudi Arabia

The military industry is indeed one of the sectors Iskandar Safa is capitalising on to build his industrial empire. He is known in France for his role in getting French hostages freed in Lebanon in the 1980s.

In 1992, as CEO of the holding company Privinvest, whose head office is in Beirut, he acquired Normandy Mechanical Constructions (Constructions mécaniques de Normandie – CMN) and its Cherbourg shipyards. CMN constructs yachts and naval vessels which include "fighters", "corvettes", "vigilantes" and "interceptors". The CMN shipyards were experiencing financial difficulties at the time of the purchase. In 1998, CMN won a contract with Kuwait selling the country missile patrol boats. In 2003, a contract was signed with the United Arab Emirates selling it a number of Corvettes which “would fill up its relatively empty order book, even though the company was experiencing serious financial difficulties and accumulating social and tax debts,” a parliamentary report stated a year later.

Then there were the contracts with Saudi Arabia, selling them patrol boats in 2015. As the arms market is highly political, the contract did not come into effect until early 2018. On July 24th of 2019, the regional newspaper La Manche libre reported that a ceremony was held to celebrate the delivery of two initial boats to Saudi Arabia, with an official Saudi delegation present but without the French press, which had not been invited. A coalition of countries, led by Saudi Arabia, have been waging war in Yemen since 2015, and sales of military equipment to countries involved in the war has become increasingly controversial. Amnesty International has documented human rights violations and war crimes throughout the country. Yet this doesn’t stop France from selling military equipment to Saudi Arabia. The French government continues to approve such exports. Such contracts obviously provide jobs for boilermakers, welders, mechanics and electricians at Cherbourg. “Over a hundred job offers (both temporary and permanent contracts) have been published on the CMN’s Facebook page,” a local news site noted. “There is therefore a surge in recruitment linked to discussions with Saudi Arabia,” explained the shipyard’s director, Pierre Balmer, to the local press.

US courts target trawler contracts

Iskandar Safa’s shipyards also manufacture civilian vessels, yachts and fishing boats. An order for 24 trawlers and 6 patrol boats for a government-owned Mozambican tuna fishing company was signed with the Cherbourg shipyards in September 2013. Iskandar Safa was himself present at Cherbourg for the signing of the contract, alongside three French ministers. Mozambique’s Finance Minister Manuel Chang also made the trip. A US court has since suspected the contract to be connected to an alleged corruption case and fraudulent loans, concealed by Mozambican state officials.

The indictment, filed by US prosecutors, resulted in the arrest of Finance Minister Manual Chang in South Africa on 29 December. Several days later, two former Crédit Suisse bankers who had orchestrated the loans as well as a Privinvest executive were arrested under the same indictment. They were indicted under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, a US federal law that seeks to fight corruption of public officials abroad.

Job cuts in German shipyards

Privinvest also acquired three shipyards in Germany, in the Kiel region on the Baltic Coast. In June 2018, Privinvest’s German subsidiary, German Naval Yards (formerly Abu Dhabi Mar until 2014), announced that it was closing one of its three shipyards: Lindenau, used for ship repairs. Another of its sites, Nobiskrug, is used to build luxury yachts. “It appears that there are to be 190 job cuts on the site, with only sixty to be redeployed,” said Heiko Messerschmidt, head of the shipyard sector at the trade union IG Metall.

It appears that Iskandar Safa has decided to focus on naval vessels, which are either to be exported or used in the German Navy. “Safa is actively looking to collaborate with German politicians, both in regional areas and in Berlin,” noted Heiko Messerschmidt. Iskandar Safa thus met two ministers from the state of Schleswig-Holstein, where the shipyards are located, in May 2018.

Iskandar Safa takes Greece to court over free trade agreements

Yet the holding company’s relationship with German authorities has not always been friendly. The Ministry of Defence was to directly award – with no invitation to tender – a five-corvette contract for the German navy to a consortium of German companies. In April 2017, a Privinvest spokesperson revealed the company’s intention to take Germany to an international arbitral tribunal – the tribunals that handle private investor-state dispute settlements, the notorious ISDS – under an investment treaty signed between Lebanon and Germany. This, however, proved unnecessary as Privinvest had also lodged a complaint with the German anti-cartel office and was successful a month later. The German Naval Yards shipyards were awarded the corvette contract, teaming up with German steel giant ThyssenKrupp.

Privinvest had no problem carrying out similar threats made against Greece. The group acquired the Greek shipyard Hellenic Shipyards off German company ThyssenKrupp in 2010, when markets began to falter due to the crisis in Greece. Submarines were under construction for the Greek navy at the time of the acquisition. It didn’t take long for the investor and the Greek government to come to a head. “Greece has stopped paying its bills. Business called to a halt in 2011 with several ships put on hold ,” stated French newspaper Le Monde. Privinvest took the Greek state to the International Court of Arbitration at the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC), and the country was ordered to pay 200 million euros to the holding company.

In 2016, Iskandar Safa filed another lawsuit against Greece regarding the same shipyard and an investment agreement signed between Athens and Beirut, this time with the World Bank’s Private Arbitration Court (the bank’s International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes). The Greek judges finally decided that the shipyard would require special management and should possibly be sold. In an article published in Les Échos, Safa accused Aléxis Tsipras (who came to power in 2015) and his left-wing government of “stealing” the shipyard.

Privinvest is also linked to two offshore companies that featured in the Panama Papers, the millions of leaked documents that detail offshore entities domiciled in tax havens and managed by Panama-based law firm and corporate service provider Mossack Fonseca. French newspaper Le Monde, which played a role in disclosing the Panama Papers, published an article in 2016 which revealed Privinvest subsidiaries based in Switzerland, the USA and Abu Dhabi, as well as those based in the Virgin Islands, and in which the holding company holds shares.

Diagrams from the Panama Papers

“For some reason, just because I own the magazine Valeurs actuelles, the finger has been pointed at me as the owner of two offshore companies. Aside from the fact that this information is of no importance, everyone knows that there is no law against such companies which may be created for business purposes and which I don’t feel any need to justify here,” retorted Safa in his right of reply to the newspaper [1].

In July 2019, in economic newspaper Les Echos, the current boss of Privinvest Média announced that his group had “other projects in print press”. Will the newspapers that might be absorbed in Iskandar Safa’s media empire be able to report freely on the shady business of their new owner?

Iskandar Safa
Country: France, Lebanon
Fortune: 1.1 billion euro in 2019 (Challenges)
= more than 24,000 years of the French average wage
= more than 60,000 years of the French minimum wage
Sector : Naval yards, Media
Companies : Privinvest
By Rachel Knaebel (Basta!, Observatoire des multinationales)

Originally published in French by Basta! on 30 September 2019. Translation: Susanna Gendall.

Translation : Susanna Gendall

Photo credit : Les chantiers navals de Kiel. CC iebeslakritze via Flickr.

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[1“« Panama papers » : les affaires offshore d’Iskandar Safa, le propriétaire de « Valeurs actuelles »”, Le Monde, 25 April 2016.

Article published as part of our investigation: «Know your Billionaires!»
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