French wine giant, African militia and Chinese partner

An anti-violence organisation co-founded by George Clooney has published a report accusing the Groupe Castel conglomerate of co-financing a violent militia called the Union for Peace in Central Africa. The company, the third largest alcohol producer in the world, denies the accusations. However, French prosecutors have launched an investigation into the matter, and it is not all the group's problems.

Groupe Castel is one of the biggest players in the alcohol market. The family-owned giant was founded in 1949 under the name Castel Frères and is still managed by family members. From the beginning, they planned to focus on the mass production of cheap, everyday wines. It has succeeded; the concern owns three of the best-selling wines in France: Roche Mazet, Vieux Papes and La Villageoise.

The company grew rapidly. It has acquired a number of established brands, including the chain of Nicolas shops, the German wine producer Barton & Guestier or the French company Patriarche. The group, by its own admission, sells a total of 500 million bottles of wine a year, or 16 bottles per second. It has also developed a beer business (it has around 45 breweries in Africa alone) as well as mineral waters (following the acquisition of the famous Vichy) and soft drinks.

In more than a dozen countries in French-speaking Africa, Groupe Castel is virtually a monopoly in the alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks sector. Its boss Pierre Castel is friends with the leaders of many countries in the area and has been attending their celebrations for years. This is a politically unstable region, gripped by wars, so doing business here is sometimes quite difficult. This is why they are watched by both competitors and various organisations, especially humanitarian ones.

Accusations that the African branch of the corporation was collaborating with local terrorist militias surfaced exactly one year ago. It was then that the American website The Sentry - describing investigations by the anti-violence organisation Satellite Sentinel Project, co-founded by the famous actor George Clooney - published a report suggesting that Castel's African subsidiary was complicit in war crimes in the area. This was thought to involve the company's collaboration with a militia called the Union for Peace in Central Africa (UPC), accused of murder, torture and rape. Castel was to pay off the UPC in return for avoiding 'trouble' and securing its market position in the region.
A report in The Sentry entitled. "Cultivating cruelty" begins with the sentence: "French sugar and beverage giant Castel Group linked to funding violent militias in Central African Republic". Photo printscreen from
The UPC is a militia from the armed coalition of Séléka rebel groups, which contributed to the civil war in the Central African Republic 10 years ago. A number of military organisations are still active in the area, and recently there has been much buzz about the activities of a private Russian mercenary army, the 'Wagner Group', which seeks to destabilise French influence in this part of the continent. In 2018, they were accused of murdering a team of Russian journalists in the Central African Republic who were shooting material about its activities, among other things.

The report published by The Sentry was so shocking that, as Reuters reported in July this year, French counter-terrorism prosecutors launched an investigation "into allegations of potential complicity in war crimes in the Central African Republic made against Groupe Castel".

'War speculation has fuelled protracted and devastating armed conflicts around the world, too often without legal or financial consequences for the perpetrators", commented John Prendergast, who co-founded The Sentry with Clooney.

A spokesperson for Groupe Castel told Reuters that the company was fully cooperating with the French authorities and that it had already launched an internal investigation into the matter after the first accusations emerged. However, it found no evidence of any wrongdoing.

But these are not Groupe Castel's only problems - these have been dragging on for at least a decade and are very complex. At issue is the group's activities in the beer market in China, where it entered into partnerships with a local businessman. The French authorities were alerted when the partners had a disagreement and the Chinese businessman started demanding money from his partner in the local courts, of which the Parisian tax authorities knew nothing. According to the Sud Ouest newspaper, Castel was accused of presenting "false balance sheets". The French giant is not commenting on the case, while their lawyer considered it a "technical and accounting dispute".

Both investigations are ongoing and the accusations obviously need to be proven, which will probably be difficult. But it does not bring glory to Groupe Castel.

–Wojciech Gogoliński

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and jornalists

–Translated by Tomasz Krzyżanowski

The author is editor of the magazine 'Czas Wina' (Wine Time). Among his publications there’s his Leksykon alkoholi ['Lexicon of ALcohools’] and the book Wiedza o winie ['Wine Knowledge’].

Main photo: The wine cellar. Photo by Hoberman/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
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