Jeff Pearce
Corporate Risk
The Oracle: Eric Denece, head of CF2R Services | Canadian Insurance
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The Oracle: Eric Denece, head of CF2R Services

How the ex-intelligence officer is shaking the intelligence community's bad rep in France

It’s no accident that political risk analysis—at least as it’s done in North America and the UK—rolls out the welcome mat for many intelligence professionals. These are highly skilled individuals who can often tell you before the evening news why Nigeria may be a bad place to put your oil rigs lately—often because they’ve been there. They might even have done ops there.

But while spying remains “cool” in the West (except for sinister, omnipresent surveillance of us) Eric Denécé maintains it’s a different story in France. “In France, intelligence is something bad. It’s something negative. If you are an intelligence officer or a former intelligence officer you are necessarily someone who is stealing with lying, with manipulation.”

So while clients may want to know what Denécé’s firm, CF2R, can bring them, at the same time they “are absolutely reluctant because they don’t know exactly what is intelligence, and we have a bad reputation in their minds.” He says for 15 years, he’s been trying to change this image. He’s even complained to British counterparts that if he were one of them, he would do four or five times better in business. It’s why he created the French Centre for Intelligence Studies, to educate executives and even the general public on what intelligence is—and isn’t.

Denécé himself once belonged to a special intelligence division attached to the French prime minister’s office, and he’s worked as a consultant in various countries in Southeast Asia. He doesn’t duck the hard questions put over his role handling intelligence for the Total oil company in mid-1990s Myanmar—an era when the brutal military junta punished any dissent and repressed the country’s patchwork quilt of ethnic groups… who inconveniently live in areas rich in mineral and petroleum resources.

Denécé says he spent most of his time in Yangon (Rangoon), and army soldiers were a necessary evil to protect Total’s pipeline under construction, as well as its employees, from guerrilla attacks. He says he also had to reach out to guerrilla groups and the National League for Democracy to smooth relations because of their opposition to the pipeline, and that “we were, I mean, on the side of the NLD to help them for democracy, but I was not there for this kind of specific job.”

He maintains that Texaco and Shell did their best to exploit bad publicity over Total’s presence in Burma—while carrying on with projects of their own in the country. “They decided to do that job as secretly as possible and to put the light on everything which was bad on the French.”

Denécé is withering about the apparent hypocrisy. “My opinion is absolutely clear. I knew from the beginning that if we didn’t go there, the Americans would have the [pipeline] project. They would have the project, and because we know them very well, we know that if they have the project nobody would be speaking about Burma.”

Denécé has been a university professor in Bordeaux and Beirut, and he’s authored more than twenty books—he even co-wrote a book on espionage for children.

These days, his consulting firm doesn’t handle only geopolitical risk; it’s expanding into what he calls “societal risk”—eco-terrorism, animal rights militancy, trade union extremism.

He also helps companies avoid the minefield of getting involved with criminal enterprises. In one case, a European firm wanted to invest its money in Mauritius to get into the vanilla business. “After some investigation, I was back in Europe and I told them, you don’t have to go, because all the business of the vanilla there is under the hand of the local mafia.” In fact, Denécé told the company’s executives bluntly that if they tried to buy any plantations and get set up, . “your people would be killed.”

Some clients, however, aren’t willing to listen, and he says all CF2R can do is advise.

“Of course, sometimes they don’t pay attention to us and they have a lot of problems. That’s not my business any longer, but most of the time they are listening to us, but sometimes they don’t… Sometimes the risk could be high, but the business is so interesting they decided to go. I can understand that, but I think more and more it’s too dangerous to do that.”

Then there’s the hard reality of doing business in certain countries, i.e. local corruption. Denécé has to explain to some clients that in this or that nation, “two percent or three percent” of a contract might involve kicking a few bribes to officials. “I’m just, can I say, we are acting like people who are decrypting the regional rules of local corruption.”

Meanwhile, Denécé is decrypting other rules—working away on yet another book, this one about his company’s new specialty, eco-terrorism.