Portrait of a Billionaire on His Way to Prison—in France

10 October, 2022


Jordan Elgrably


Sto­ries of con­vict­ed and impris­oned bil­lion­aires are few and far between. In fact, I don’t know of many in the Unit­ed States who’ve been locked up. There’s Bernie Mad­off, cer­tain­ly, who died in prison; Bernard Ebbers of the World­Com scan­dal; and per­haps the late dis­graced sex offend­er, Jef­frey Epstein. Don­ald Trump is with­out a doubt the most famous bil­lion­aire to escape the jaws of jus­tice, but with sev­er­al crim­i­nal and civ­il cas­es pend­ing against him, the aging ex-pres­i­dent may yet find him­self in a six by nine prison cell.

Mohed Altrad is a Syr­i­an-born self-made bil­lion­aire, and a nov­el­ist, who is fac­ing a prison stretch for finan­cial crimes as the head of a French rug­by team and the CEO of the Altrad Group. He was born into a Syr­i­an Bedouin fam­i­ly in the region of Raqaa (lat­er to become famous as the ISIS strong­hold dur­ing Syria’s inter­nal war). Grow­ing up in a clan of poor nomads with­out a future, leg­end has it that he was the result of a rape, that his moth­er died short­ly after he was born and that he was repu­di­at­ed by his father. He was raised by his grandparents.

Despite not know­ing French, at the age of 18 Altrad emi­grat­ed to France on an engi­neer­ing schol­ar­ship. He arrived with only 200 francs in his pock­et, study­ing at first at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mont­pel­li­er. He went on to com­plete a doc­tor­ate at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Paris-VIII in 1978. Altrad then went to work for French giants Alca­tel and Thom­son, before spend­ing a few years as a petrol engi­neer in Abu Dhabi. He returned to France in 1984 with sev­er­al hun­dred thou­sand dol­lars in sav­ings, with which he start­ed his first com­pa­ny, France Infor­ma­tique Élec­tron­ique et Télé­ma­tique, man­u­fac­tur­ing portable com­put­ers. He sold his shares at a prof­it the fol­low­ing year, and invest­ed in a fail­ing scaf­fold­ing com­pa­ny, an adven­ture that would lead to his phe­nom­e­nal suc­cess in the con­struc­tion busi­ness, at the head of the Altrad Group, now an inter­na­tion­al behe­moth with 17,000 employ­ees. In 2015, Altrad was named Ernst & Young World Entre­pre­neur of the Year — the first Arab busi­ness­man to be cho­sen in the award’s history.

On Sep­tem­ber 21, 2022, the French equiv­a­lent of the attor­ney gen­er­al for finan­cial crimes request­ed three years in prison for Altrad, Bernard Laporte and oth­ers involved in the rug­by scan­dal known as the Affaire Laporte-Altrad. Not because he’s a Syr­i­an Mus­lim, I’m sure, but the pros­e­cu­tor insist­ed on a one year min­i­mum stretch behind bars for Altrad, cit­ing the offences of cor­rup­tion, influ­ence ped­dling, ille­gal tak­ing of inter­est, breach of trust and mis­use of cor­po­rate assets. He was also fined 200,000 euros and the pros­e­cu­tor asked the court to impose a two-year ban on man­ag­ing a com­mer­cial com­pa­ny and a two-year ban on hold­ing any posi­tion, even a vol­un­tary one, relat­ed to rugby.

Mohed Altrad’s nov­els include Badawi, L’hy­pothèse de Dieu and La Promesse d’An­nah, all from Actes Sud.

The indict­ed bil­lion­aire pub­lished his first nov­el, Éden : l’ex­trême tu évit­eras, in 1998 with Har­mat­tan, but his claim to lit­er­ary fame came with the nov­el­iza­tion of his life sto­ry in Badawi (Actes Sud, 2002). The book jack­et quote from Badawi sum­ma­rizes the nov­el this way:

When his moth­er, who was once repu­di­at­ed, dies, a young Badawi — a Bedouin — defies tra­di­tion and turns his back on the des­tiny that was laid out for him. He will go to school. Bet­ter yet, he will shine. Hurt by his fam­i­ly, tired of the life of mis­ery and humil­i­a­tion, torn between the exis­tence imposed on him and the one he would like to live, he leaves for France to real­ize his dream: to become some­one, some­one else. Desir­ing at all costs to for­get his past, believ­ing he has become this “oth­er” who has suc­ceed­ed — to the point that Maïouf “the aban­doned” has become Qaher “the vic­to­ri­ous” — he is called back home by a promise and a child­hood love, and by the call of the desert that can­not be stifled.

The prose in Badawi is sim­ple yet evoca­tive, if a tad under­whelm­ing, but Altrad does write author­i­ta­tive­ly of life in the Syr­i­an desert and the strug­gle of an orphaned boy to get an edu­ca­tion. The nov­el speaks of being uproot­ed and of exile, but by rein­vent­ing him­self as a new French cit­i­zen, a wealthy busi­ness­man, and a French-lan­guage nov­el­ist, Altrad’s is an unher­ald­ed suc­cess sto­ry — that is, until his tri­al before the Paris Cor­rec­tion­al Court last month.

The bil­lion­aire pub­lished two more nov­els, L’Hypothèse de Dieu in 2006 and La Promesse d’Annah in 2012, and noth­ing since then.

Altrad’s defense claims the pros­e­cu­tion is reach­ing for straws. “No email, no call, there is noth­ing! No evi­dence!” his lawyers argued. Nonethe­less, the Syr­i­an-French bil­lion­aire is fac­ing at least a year behind bars. Free on his own recog­ni­zance, sen­tenc­ing for Altrad and his co-con­spir­a­tors is expect­ed on Decem­ber 13, 2022.



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Mike Booth
Mike Booth
1 month ago

I love being the first. Con­grat­u­la­tions, M. Elgrably for the pro­fes­sion­al­ism of The Markaz Review and for offer­ing us infor­ma­tion that we can­not get any­where else. Please keep on doing what you’re doing. Un abra­zo, Miguel