The arrest of Didier Pineau-Valencienne, chairman of France's Groupe Schneider in Brussels in late May, sent shock waves through the Continent's boardrooms. It also inflamed Belgians' deep-seated Francophobia. But it looks as if there's more to the French executive's month-long jail stay than Belgian spite. On the same day, Italian financier Valentino Foti was also arrested in Brussels on similar charges of fraud, forgery, embezzlement, and violation of accounting rules.
As chairman of Schneider--a $9.8 billion supplier of electrical equipment once partly owned by the Belgian Empain family--Pineau-Valencienne is also accused of lowballing the value of minority shares in two Belgian affiliates he sought to make wholly owned units in a 1992 reorganization. Pineau-Valencienne earned the nickname "Dr. Attila" in the 1980s for his ruthless restructuring of Schneider. To Belgians, this sounds like another replay of another French invasion, the 1992 buyout of Belgium's Wagon-Lits by Accor, the French travel group, which was ordered by a Belgian court to up its initial, inadequate offer to minority shareholders. Belgium's hard-nosed treatment of a blue-chip executive could signal a tough new stance in Europe against questionable financial dealings.