LVMH was under attack.
As the French luxury goods group was gearing up for a general shareholder’s meeting in 2021, a left-wing NGO had launched a campaign denouncing businessmen for making money from the COVID crisis. Among them: LVMH’s billionaire CEO Bernard Arnault, the world’s second richest person.
It was a good opportunity for Altrnativ, a cybersurveillance firm co-founded by the French entrepreneur Eric Leandri, to showcase its capacity in open-source intelligence or OSINT, a form of digital investigation which usually involves compiling and analyzing publicly available information.
Leandri had made his name in France as a champion of online privacy and co-founder of the search engine Qwant, once heralded as the “French Google.” His new company Altrnativ is in an entirely different line of business — investigating the critics, rivals and employees of some of the biggest brands in France.
Together with a partner, Altrnativ monitored the social media activities of French NGO ATTAC and some of its supporters, placing "several activists,” including the left-wing French Member of the European Parliament Manon Aubry, “under surveillance,” according to a report that was part of a trove of internal Altrnativ documents seen by POLITICO. ATTAC had accused LVMH of paying large dividends to its shareholders, even as it took advantage of government measures intended to ease the economic impact of the pandemic.
There's no evidence in the documents that LVMH was involved in commissioning this report, and Leandri described the job in an interview with POLITICO as one in a series of trial runs his company carried out for other private security and crisis management firms.
But together with thousands of other documents, the report opens a window on the rapidly growing cybersurveillance industry, as private security companies take advantage of the proliferation of online data, especially on social media, to investigate their clients’ critics and monitor reputational threats, with little regulatory oversight.
“Over the last fifteen years, there has been a use of data for commercial purposes which has invaded our privacy in a hyper-intrusive way,” said Estelle Massé, an expert in data protection at the digital rights advocacy group Access Now.
Privacy rights, she said, were set up to protect individuals, while requiring transparency from big powers like governments or corporations. "We're in the process of turning this completely upside down,” she said. “Those with the most power now have more rights than ordinary people.”
Told about the report, Aubry, the MEP, said investigations into public figures and activists could have a “chilling effect” on attempts to hold companies to account. "Am I now going to be worried as soon as I pick up my phone? Will I hold back and be afraid before I start a campaign?" she said.
Altrnativ performed the research into LVMH's critics in partnership with AB Global Consulting, a crisis management company set up by a former LVMH employee named Annabelle Bouffay.
A report contained in the internal Altrnativ documents bearing AB Global Consulting's logo analyzed hashtags like #profiteursdelacrise, #lvmh, #bernardarnault and #crisesociale. The report said it had identified several activists, including Aubry, the MEP, and placed them “under surveillance.”
The report's author concluded the risk from the campaign was not yet significant but recommended putting in place a system of real-time alerts to monitor launches of future campaigns against the company. Bouffay told POLITICO she trialed Altrnativ’s services using LVMH as a test case but chose not to work further with them. She said the work wasn’t commissioned by or billed to the luxury brand. Contacted by POLITICO, Leandri said he did not recognize the language used in the report. “I have never used this kind of word,” he said. "We do not put anyone under surveillance.”
In notes from a meeting with Bouffay, Altrnativ’s head of marketing described her as an “associate” of Bernard Squarcini, who has a sulfurous reputation in France. Bouffay said she knew Squarcini from when she worked at LVMH but they were not in business together.
A former head of France’s homeland intelligence services, Squarcini has been accused by prosecutors of spying on a left-wing French journalist on behalf of LVMH. At the time of the alleged spying, his target, François Ruffin, was producing a documentary on Arnault. Ruffin is now an MP with the left-wing France Unbowed party.
In December 2021, LVMH agreed to a €10 million settlement to close a criminal probe into the company. Squarcini remains under investigation, including for influence peddling. Contacted, a representative for Squarcini said there were ongoing appeals and that “the presumption of innocence prevails.”
According to two people who have previously done business with Altrnativ and several former employees, Squarcini was often seen in Altrnativ’s offices. Squarcini representative said the former spy chief met with Leandri on four to five occasions but that the two were “never in a business relationship.”
“It was rather a question of enlightening him on the French institutional inner workings, about those in power in different services for which he wanted to be authorized to work, or on the organization of certain African countries where he seemed to want to expand,” the representative said.
LVMH declined to comment.
Aubry, the MEP, said she was not "fundamentally surprised" to see France Unbowed again being the target of a private investigation and said efforts like this would one day have to be addressed by lawmakers.
"These are cowboy methods to me, but France and the European Union are not exactly the Wild West," she said.
At around the same time Altrnativ was monitoring NGOs criticizing LVMH, the company joined a project looking into union leaders that could become a problem for Lesieur, France’s leading manufacturer of cooking oil and mayonnaise.
The agro-industrial giant planned to merge two factories in Bassens, a town near Bordeaux, and lay off dozens of employees in the process. The job, according to reports produced with the help of Altrnativ, involved “detecting signals of opposition; identifying activist groups (yellow jackets); preventing potential protests.”
For this job, Altrnativ worked with Maegis, a private security company. Charles Pellegrini, a special adviser and shareholder of Maegis, is a friend of Squarcini. He has been charged with "complicity and concealment of breach of trust" in connection to work he allegedly did for LVMH. He denies any wrongdoing.
The reports into Lesieur's potential critics, which bore the Maegis logo, said four members of the left-wing CGT union had been placed “under surveillance.” The report's authors also claimed to be monitoring the social media accounts of the mayor of Bassens, as well as Facebook pages from local yellow jacket protestors and bikers’ clubs.
Max Schrems, a lawyer and Austrian privacy activist said that these types of efforts could sometimes be legal under "legitimate interest” exemptions of the EU's General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) online privacy laws. "There is a certain room that makes it legal to check who criticizes you for PR reasons,” he said. "But the big question with legitimate interest is how far it goes and if it becomes 24-7 monitoring, then it can be problematic.”
Maegis told POLITICO the job was a one-time only test of Altrnativ's services and that the relationship did not continue after that. Lesieur did not respond to a request for comment.
In addition to the work Altrnativ did for AB Global Consulting, the documents seen by POLITICO show Leandri's firm also worked directly for LVMH. Signed invoices seen by POLITICO show one of the luxury group's subsidiaries paid Altrnativ close to €30,000.
The company monitored media reports for the group's premier fashion brand Louis Vuitton, which was concerned that news of a controversial guest at a company party in Madrid would mar the launch of a new store.
Louis Vuitton had thrown a swanky party in Madrid’s upscale Galeria Canalejas shopping center, enlisting high-society influencers.
The invite-only event for the Madrid elite had been attended by Lotfi Bel Hadj, a French-Tunisian businessman and one of the most prominent defenders of Tariq Ramadan, a Muslim scholar with family ties to the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood who is awaiting trial for rape.
A person close to Bel Hadj confirmed he was invited every year to Louis Vuitton parties and had attended one in May 2021 in Madrid. The person also denied Bel Hadj had ties with Ramadan or the Muslim Brotherhood.
Altrnativ monitored the web for a month on Louis Vuitton's behalf, looking for any mention of Bel Hadj’s attendance. According to its report, the company found just one article, promoted by one Facebook post and one tweet.
A writer for Fild, a now-defunct online French-language outlet in Barcelona, penned a piece on the ties between Qatar and Louis Vuitton's parent company, LVMH. In the article, now only available in an online archive, the author mentions the soirée and a sensitive guest but does not name Bel Hadj by name.
“The article has had few consequences,” read the report. Things would have been worse, it continued, “if the name of Bel Hadj had gotten out, if the article had got more traction, or if Louis Vuitton hadn't announced a collaboration with Korean pop superstar band BTS the same month.”