French minister in hot water over ties with defense giant Dassault

Agnès Pannier-Runacher has been living in a house owned by heirs of the defense and media conglomerate.

French Energy Minister Agnès Pannier-Runacher has been living since last year in a house owned by heirs of Dassault Group, raising questions as to her ties with the defense and media conglomerate — once part of her ministerial remit.

Pannier-Runacher moved in with her partner in the house in Lens, northern France, in 2021. The property is owned by an estate company controlled by heirs of now-deceased Olivier Dassault, the elder son of industry czar Serge Dassault.

Pannier-Runacher was industry minister at the time of the move, with the defense behemoth Dassault Group's activities partly under her scope. While she was under no legal obligation to disclose her landlord's identity, the arrangement sparks questions as to the scope of current rules and the risk of conflict of interest.

Pannier-Runacher said she was not aware of the landlord's identity, as the lease had been signed by her partner before she moved in.

"When I moved in with my partner in May 2021, he had been occupying the house since 2017. I didn't know who the landlord was," the minister told local newspaper La Voix du Nord Thursday.

The Dassault family controls the group of the same name via a family holding.

When Olivier Dassault died in March 2021, Pannier-Runacher described him as a "delicate friend". Two months later, she moved into a house owned by his family estate that her partner Nicolas Bays had been renting since 2017.

Bays had himself been working in Pannier-Runacher's cabinet at the industry ministry since 2020, first as an adviser then as her chief of cabinet. He was previously a Socialist MP and developed close ties with Olivier Dassault, himself a conservative MP for Les Républicains party. They were both vice-presidents of a France-Qatar parliamentary intergroup, an informal group facilitating exchanges between the two countries.

He said he didn't feel the need to disclose his housing situation at the time.

"As I have a classic lease, paying my rent regularly, and as this situation is not mentioned in the HATVP [the French civil service's ethical body] guidelines, it did not seem necessary to declare it," he said.

The Dassault family wasn't immediately available for comment.

The same month she moved in, the then industry minister boasted Croatia's and Greece's latest orders of Dassault-made Rafale military jets.

The couple's ties with the Dassault family aren't covered by the French government's ethics rules, which require ministers, members of their cabinets and members of parliament to disclose their estate and external professional activities.

But the revelations raise broader transparency and ethics questions.

Béatrice Guillemont, director general at anti-corruption NGO Anticor, said that a conflict of interest is described by French law as "any situation of interference between a public interest and public or private interests which is likely to influence or to appear to influence the independent, impartial and objective exercise of a function."

Guillemont says the question arises as to why Nicolas Bays did not deem it necessary to inform his superior, then Minister of Industry and companion, that they were living in a house belonging to one of the most influential French industrialist families.

"One should not wait until it falls under [specific ethics rules] to declare a certain number of interests or activities," she said.

The news broke as Pannier-Runacher was already under fire over her family's ties with oil company Perenco — of which her father was a top executive — after media outlet Disclose published information about her children's inheritance.

MPs for far left party France Unbowed have slammed the minister for what they saw as a lack of transparency over both matters.

"Today, we discover that when she was minister for industry, she was staying at a big industrialist's house. Legal maybe, moral certainly not," tweeted Clémence Guetté, vice president of the France Unbowed group in the National Assembly, the parliament's lower chamber.
×