The case of French cement giant Lafarge and its alleged links with the ISIL (ISIS) group in Syria has prompted a continuing debate in France around the complicity of multinationals in financing armed groups.
It also raised questions about the responsibility of the French state and on Paris’s actions when it came across information about the workings of the cement manufacturer in ISIL-occupied Syria.
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On Tuesday, France’s top court overturned a decision by a lower court to dismiss charges brought against Lafarge for complicity in crimes against humanity in Syria’s civil war.
The ruling by the Court of Cassation marked a major setback for Lafarge, which is accused of paying nearly 13 million euros ($15.3m) to armed groups, including ISIL, to keep its cement factory in northern Syria running through the early years of the country’s war.
Lafarge, which merged with Swiss company Holcim in 2015 to become the world’s largest cement maker, has been under formal investigation in France for its efforts to keep a factory running in Syria after the conflict erupted in 2011.
In a statement on Tuesday, the company said that the French Supreme Court’s decision “does not conclude that Lafarge SA is guilty of any of the charges.”
“Lafarge continues to cooperate fully with the French judicial authorities,” added the statement.
“We have taken immediate and firm steps to make sure that similar events do not happen again,” it said, explaining that the company stopped operating in Syria more than six years ago.
According to documents published by the French daily Liberation and Turkey’s Anadolu Agency over the past weeks, French intelligence officials were aware of an agreement between Lafarge and ISIL in 2014.
Liberation’s report revealed that a document from the Directorate General of External Security (DGSE), dated 26 August 2014 and labelled as “confidential defence” showed that the French state “was well aware of the conditions under which Lafarge maintained its activity in Syria, in territory partly occupied by the Islamic State”.
“It is a document that leaves no room for doubt,” the French paper said. “An agreement was found between the cement manufacturer and IS for the continuation of the commercial activity,” it added.
According to Anadolu Agency’s report, relations between Lafarge and French intelligence agencies started on January 22, 2014, when the company’s security director Jean-Claude Veillard sent an email to the interior ministry’s intelligence directorate.
In his email, Veillard said the company needed to maintain relations with “local actors” to be able to continue its operations in Syria.
Recalling the negative news that appeared about the company, he asked whether executives and the headquarters of the company were under threat.
According to documents revealed by Anadolu Agency, there were more than 30 meetings between Lafarge and the French domestic, foreign and military intelligence services between 2013 and 2014 alone.
“Lafarge seemingly kept their presence in Syria open with the knowledge and complicity of the French state for espionage and intelligence-gathering purposes,” said Tallha Abdulrazaq, an academic specialising in counterterrorism and security at the University of Exeter’s Strategy and Security Institute.
“To do so, it needed to pay money to ISIS for the right to continue production, to pay tolls in order to secure free passage, and it even seemingly purchased raw materials from ISIS necessary for cement production,” said Abdulrazaq.
According to Abdulrazaq, France’s actions surrounding the cement giant show hypocrisy in the country’s approach towards its Muslim community, which at more than five million people is the largest in Europe.
The ruling in the Lafarge case comes as a trial of unprecedented scale started in France this week over the November 2015 attacks in Paris that killed some 130 people and wounded hundreds of others.
The incident involved gunmen with suicide vests attacking six bars and restaurants, the Bataclan concert hall and a sports stadium, leaving deep scars on the nation’s psyche.
French President Emmanuel Macron’s recent bid to regulate Islam in the country has been met with criticism, with some observers claiming the minority is being collectively punished for the actions of a fringe group that has carried out attacks.
Macron on October 2 last year said Islam was a religion “in crisis” globally as he outlined plans for a new law aimed at tackling what he called “Islamist separatism”.
On October 16, 47-year-old teacher Samuel Paty was beheaded in a middle-class Paris suburb. He had shown his students the caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad in a lesson on free speech.
On October 29, three people were stabbed to death in a knife attack at a church in the southern city of Nice. Macron branded both attacks “Islamist terrorism”.
“France is duplicitous primarily for targeting Muslims domestically through Islamophobic legislation that seeks to limit their freedoms and silence them at a grassroots level by ‘otherising’ them as separate from French society, and all in the name of fighting terrorism,” said Abdulrazaq.
“Meanwhile, the French are actively involved in granting permission to a multinational corporation to conduct business to the tune of tens of millions of dollars to one of the most violent and notorious extremist jihadist groups in the world,” he added. “The hypocrisy is jaw-dropping.”
Rayan Freschi, a France-based researcher for campaign group CAGE, said that following the 2015 Bataclan attack, France “clearly turned a blind eye over Assad’s crimes against humanity, and established very strong anti-Muslim policies domestically under the disguise of anti-terrorism struggle.”
“France’s approach ushered in a draconian policy,” said Freschi, adding that the state closured more than 615 mosques, schools or businesses run by Muslims.
Lafarge, whose Syrian subsidiary paid the armed groups through intermediaries, was charged in 2018 with endangering the lives of former employees at the cement plant in Jalabiya, northern Syria.
On November 18, 2018, an intelligence officer, code-named AM 02, appeared in court and admitted that Lafarge was his source of information in Syria, reported Anadolu Agency.
The intelligence officer told the judge how the French secret services took advantage of the Lafarge factory.
“We approached the situation purely opportunistically, taking advantage of Lafarge’s continued work,” the intelligence officer said in the court.
In the records, the intelligence officer did not exclude Daesh (ISIL), saying Lafarge sent cement to all armed groups in Syria (including the al-Nusra Front) in 2012-2014.
According to Freschi, after Lafarge invested 680 million euros in Syria before the conflict, it had to choose between “either abruptly refusing any commercial collaboration and hence losing the investment or establishing ties with whoever was on the ground to maintain some form economic activity.”
At the same time, “ISIS needed primary resources provided by whatever actor. Lafarge was one of them,” he added.
With the supplied cement, ISIL reportedly constructed fortified shelters and tunnel networks against the US-led coalition.
According to Abdulrazaq, “ISIL at the time was trying to run a quasi-state, so cement would have been important as a construction material in both civil and military applications.”
According to French media, the company also supplied materials and fuel to the armed group for it to continue its activities in the Jalabiya region.
In November 2019, an appeals court dropped the crimes against humanity charges after finding four rights organisations could not act as plaintiffs in the case.
Lafarge has since acknowledged that its Syrian subsidiary paid middlemen to negotiate with armed groups to allow the movement of staff and goods inside the war zone.
But it denies any responsibility for the money winding up in the hands of the groups and has fought to have the case dropped.
It was ordered to give $35m to French authorities as a security deposit before the trial.
France entered its pre-election season this month.
It will choose the final presidential candidates before the April vote, as polls show the presidential runoff will pit the centrist Macron against the far-right Marine Le Pen in a repeat of the last election.
Although Macron’s approval ratings have grown in recent months over his handling of the coronavirus crisis, the revelations brought forward by the Lafarge case could have a detrimental effect on his popularity.
“The French government’s knowledge of and complicity in financing ISIS’s terrorist operations will not sit well with French voters. After all, ISIS has been responsible for some of the gravest terror attacks on French soil,” said Abdulrazaq.
Furthermore, the latest findings might empower the Syrian government whose Russian-backed forces were accused in a 2020 Amnesty International report of actions that amount to “war crimes”.
“The narrative will be clear – the West has conspired to unleash terrorists on Syrian soil,” said Abdulrazaq. “The French government has provided the Syrian regime with a further justification for its crimes against humanity and war crimes.”