French rugby was reeling Tuesday after the president of the country’s governing body Bernard Laporte was handed a two-year suspended prison sentence on corruption charges nine months before France hosts the game’s World Cup.
Fédération Française de Rugby (FFR) president Laporte, 58, was convicted after a French court ruled he showed favouritism in awarding a shirt sponsorship contract for the national side to Mohed Altrad, the billionaire owner of Top 14 champions Montpellier. He was also banned from holding any rugby post for two years. Both are suspended pending an appeal, which Laporte’s lawyer said was imminent.
Laporte later stepped down from his role as vice-chairman of the sport’s global governing body, World Rugby, pending a review by the body’s ethics officer.
“World Rugby notes the decision by World Rugby vice-chairman Bernard Laporte to self-suspend from all positions held within its governance structures with immediate effect following his conviction by the French court in relation to domestic matters, and pending his appeal,” World Rugby said.
“While acknowledging Laporte’s self-suspension and right of appeal, given the serious nature of the verdict World Rugby’s Executive Committee has referred the matter to its independent ethics officer for review in accordance with its integrity code,” it added.
Laporte faces problems on the domestic front, too, with Florian Grill, who narrowly lost to him in the 2020 election for federation chief, calling for Laporte and the entire board to stand down.
“It is unheard of in rugby, this is an earthquake,” Grill told AFP. “We have never before seen a president of the federation condemned to two
years in prison, even if it suspended.
“We think the 40 members of the board of directors should draw the obvious conclusions and resign.”
French Sports Minister Amelie Oudea-Castera said the sentence was an “obstacle for Bernard Laporte to be able, as it stands, to continue his mission in good conditions” as federation president, and called for a “new democratic era to allow French rugby to rebound as quickly as possible and sufficiently healthy and solid, with a governance by the federation that will have the full confidence of the clubs”.
The court found that Laporte ensured a series of marketing decisions favourable to Altrad – who was given an 18-month suspended sentence and
€50,000 euro — in exchange for a €180,000 image licensing contract that was never actually carried out.
Altrad’s lawyer said he would study the decision before deciding on whether to appeal.
At the trial’s close in September, prosecutors said they were seeking a three-year prison sentence for Laporte, of which he should serve one behind bars, and the two others on probation.
The friendship and business links between Laporte and Altrad are at the heart of the case.
It goes back to February 2017, when they signed a deal under which Laporte agreed to appear at Altrad group conferences, and sold his image reproduction rights, in return for €180,000.
But while that sum was paid to Laporte, prosecutors claim that he neveractually provided the services he signed up for.
Laporte did, however, make several public statements backing Altrad and, in March 2017, signed the €1.8 million deal with the businessman making his namesake firm the first-ever sponsor to appear on the French national team’s jerseys.
The Altrad name and logo still features on the shirts thanks to a follow-up deal negotiated by Laporte in 2018 and which prosecutors say bears all the hallmarks of corruption. It is also on the All Blacks’ national squads’ shirts, and New Zealand Rugby is reportedly seeking an urgent meeting with company officials following the court ruling.
Laporte, formerly a highly successful coach who guided France twice to the World Cup semi-finals (2003 and 2007), was also found guilty of favouritism
with regards to Altrad’s Montpellier Herault Rugby (MHR) club.
He was convicted for intervening with French rugby’s federal disciplinary commission to reduce a fine against the club from €70,000 to €20,000 after several telephone calls from Laporte.
While prosecutors saw this and several more incidents as proof of illicit favouritism, Laporte himself had claimed there was no “cause-effect relationship”.
On the last day of the trial in October, Laporte’s lawyer Fanny Colin accused the prosecution of “confirmation bias” by “taking into account only elements backing their original assumptions”.
The verdict comes only nine months before the Rugby World Cup kicks off in France on September 8, 2023, with matches played in nine stadiums across the country.