French official in the Panama Papers, lack of vigilance from the French State?
Jean-Louis Chanel is the name of a former France-Ghana business conselour listed in the Panama Papers, among thousands of other names linked to infamous law firm Mossack Fonseca. Despite his presence in the leaks in 2016, his public mission had been renewed up to November 2019 and he was even awarded the French Order of Merit as a recognition of 36 years of service for the French state. In France, there isn’t any law forbidding high officials to own an offshore company, as long as they’re established fiscally abroad. Nonetheless, does France consider offshore finance at the appropriate face to represent its values abroad ? And was this shell company in full compliance with Ghana tax regulations at the time, what kind of business activity was it covering?
A multifaceted businessman
Jean-Louis Chanel surely wore many hats in 2016. In addition to his role of special advisor on French-Ghana business relations, he was also the vice-president of the Chamber of Commerce, a recognized “Knight” of the Order of Merit, as well as the director of the Sylva Spare Plus, back then a Renault Trucks concessionaire.
He was also, less officially, the ultimate owner of the offshore company “Sylvafrica”, based in Seychelles, as revealed by the Panama Papers dataset published in may 2016 by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and the German media Süddeutsche Zeitung.
In further company fillings shared by the ICIJ about Sylvafrica, the financial activity of the company is described as “import of trucks and other transportation equipment”. Could the concessionaire have used Sylvafrica in order to escape corporate taxes, or to optimize them ?
Contacted by our newsroom, Jean-Louis Chanel denies any kind of link between Sylvafrica and Sylva Spare Plus: “I have payed all my taxes in Ghana regarding my salary as a director of Sylva Spare Plus, and this company has nothing to do whatsoever with Sylvafrica”.
According to the former business advisor, Sylvafrica served him for yet another purpose, and yet another role he had in addition to all the aforementioned ones, as a consultant in wood export. For this activity however, the man is more evasive. Did he pay Ghanian taxes based on this consultancy activity ? How much money was made from it, before being sent to Seychelles ? He does not wish to answer these questions. However, few more elements can be found about Sylvafrica.
Fruitful transactions at the time of unregulated wood export
The correspondence shared between Jean-Louis Chanel and Mossack Fonseca clearly states another business activity behind Sylvafrica, as “timber trading” and “export”. More than a consultant, was he also exporting wood logs ? Here again, the former official denies, before being confronted with two bills of ladding retrieved from the customs of Algericas (Spain) and Abidjan (Ivory Coast) by several private companies specialized in global trade.
All indicate that a company called “Sylvafrica trading limited”, linking to a Ghanaian address exported around 80 tons of Khaya Ivorensis, also called African Mahogany, for an estimated value of around 94 000 euro at the time of the shipments, back in 2007.
Its owner, Jean-Louis Chanel then rectifies his previous declaration and does acknowledge an activity of timber trade from 2000 to 2010 in addition to his timber trade consultancy activity. However, he does not remember these specific transactions, suggesting that someone else “might have used his company”. An interesting hypothesis that could discharge him of any responsibility regarding these transactions, but that he wasn’t able to prove in any way.
According to the Environmental Investigation Agency [EIA] and their 2018 report on criminal deforestation in Gabon and Congo, the export of wood through offshore companies can be an indicator of illegal wood trafficking. An activity with great negative environmental impact in a country such as Ghana were deforestation has increased exponentially since 2000, with an increase rate of 60% in primary forest in 2018, according to Global Forest Watch.
Was the wood exported through Sylvafrica of a legal and traceable origin ? Jean-Louis Chanel confesses himself that at the time of this activity, Ghanaian regulations on timber were not as developed as they are today, preventing him for ensuring a systematic verification of the origin of the wood logs he used to export.
Jean-Louis Chanel, “victim” of the Panama Papers ?
Due to the lack of informatics resources in Ghana and its neighbouring countries in the early 2000’s, very few bills of ladding can be found mentioning Sylvafrica. But the ones found in Spain in Algericas and Abidjan do prove however a trading activity in timber, for which Jean-Louis Chanel has not made clear if he had paid corporate taxes or not in Ghana.
This represents a true ethical issue in a developing country such as Ghana, which economy relies largely on taxes (80% of its public revenue in 2017 according to the OCDE). Juridically, tax evasion would be a criteria for prosecution as well.
While Jean-Louis Chanel does admit some “carelessness” into choosing Mossack Fonseca as a law firm to open his offshore company, he does not seem to be aware of the juridical and ethical problems that poses occult finance.
“All I can tell you is that I paid many taxes for my former job as a company director with Sylva Spare Plus ; lots of taxes. For the rest, I might be listed in the Panama Papers, but I’m not a multi-billionaire comfortably smoking a cigar on my yacht. I’m a victim of the Panama Papers”. Big or small tax fraudsters however, all indistinctly participate to a global loss of 350 billions euros for governments around the world.
Regarding the French institutions responsibilities into maintaining Jean-Louis Chanel despite his presence in the Panama Papers, none of them have wished to comment, from the French Chamber of Commerce to the Prime Minister’s office who awarded him the Order of Merit in April 2016, one month after the publication of the leaks.
Jean-Louis Chanel has since then resigned from his position at the start of this investigation, in November 2019. It is now Mathieu Castre, former manager of Sylva Spare Plus, who holds the public function of special advisor to France-Ghana business relations.
By Alexandre Brutelle and Emmanuel K. Dogbevi
This investigation was developed with support of the Money Trail project (www.money-trail.org)
Disclaimer: The views/contents expressed in this article are the sole responsibility of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of iWatch Africa. iWatch Africa will not be responsible or liable for any inaccurate or incorrect statements contained in this article.