Like oil, sugar changed the world. The demand for the flavouring led to lands being seized, slaves being traded, vast fortunes being made and all manner of nefarious acts. Cane sugar came first, with relatively small plantations able to produce wealth that could sustain European aristocratic lifestyles. And then in 1747 a German chemist called Andreas Marggraf discovered there was sucrose in beetroot. It was more difficult to extract but experiments in Silesia made it economically viable.
The Napoleonic Wars led to the French banning the importation of sugar, not wanting to provide the British with funding for the wars. So the French turned to Margraff’s ideas and an sugar beet industry emerged, fortunes were made and the newly-rich married among themselves creating vast empires. They diversified, bought land, became politicians and won titles.
One of the richest men in France by the end of the 19th Century was sugar baron Gustave Lebaudy. His daughter Geneviève married Charles Bourlon de Rouvre, another sugar magnate. He would become a celebrated parliamentarian. Later their grandson Evrard presided quietly over the family empire, but indulged in his passion for film-making. His son Cyril, born in 1945, was educated in schools across Europe, so that he spoke all the right languages, and then joined the family empire, working in the sugar and then audiovisual companies.
Cyril was passionate about racing cars and took part in some motoring adventures, notably the Abidjan-Nice race in the mid-1970s, driving a Range Rover.
His life changed completely in 1979 when his father was stabbed to death by his valet (Yes, the butler DID do it). Cyril was 33 and inherited the entire family empire, including real estate holdings, the sugar refinery and 28 other companies. He modernized sugar production and added to the conglomerate, buying control of the Fraissinet transport company in 1981, including the Transair airline. In 1987 he launched into the film industry by acquiring Financière Robur, which owned an archive of 650 movies. He also began producing movies and he expanded in real estate as well, buying a hotel in Tahiti.
In 1989 he decided to embark on a political career and was elected mayor of Chaumont, in the Haute-Marne, where his grandfather had been the local deputé and later he would become a regional councillor for the Champagne-Ardennes.
At the same time, de Rouvre decided to further indulge his passion for motorsport and bought the AGS F1 team from its founder Henri Julien. He found some sponsorship from the electrical company Faure, built a new factory at Le Luc and hired new staff. Nothing much changed in terms of results.
In 1990 he pushed on, hired new people and found backing from fashion house Ted Lapidus, but the team was still not sufficiently competitive and suffered from the pre-qualifying arrangements at the time. De Rouvre sank $18 million of his own money into the business over the next two years, but soon had to start selling some of the 70 companies he owned to pay the bills, including Transair and the sugar refinery. Finally, unwilling to spend more, de Rouvre let AGS go into administration in 1991. It would revive with Italian money, but did not last long.
At the same time, the rival Ligier team seemed to be on the verge of an upswing. In 1990 the canny Guy Ligier used his connections with President François Mitterand to secure a Renault engine supply deal for 1992. Ligier also had funding from government companies Elf, SEITA (which owned Gitanes) and the La Française des Jeux national lottery so all was well – except the team’s performance was miserable. In 1992 Guy was deeply upset when he was booed by the crowds at Monaco. He was so distressed that he decided to sell the team. By November Cyril de Rouvre had acquired 90 percent of the shares, having paid around $30 million, the money coming from a loan his film business made to him. At the time Cyril was in the process of merging the firm with its much bigger rival UGC, taking UGC shares instead of money. De Rouvre told UGC he would repay the loan by the end of the year, planning to raise the money by selling his new UGC shares, which he reckoned were worth about $30 million.
De Rouvre hired Mark Blundell and Martin Brundle to drive the Ligier-Renault JS39s, designed by Gérard Ducarouge and this resulted in several podium finishes in the course of 1993, giving the team fifth in the Constructors’ Championship. It was best Ligier’s result for seven years.
The problem for de Rouvre was that the UGC shares fell in value and although he delayed the sale. UGC lost patience and filed a complaint against him for fraud in May 1993. De Rouvre had to sell the shares for just $15 million and he didn’t have the remaining money. The case went to court in December 1993 and De Rouvre was surprised when Judge Eva Joly decided to send Him to prison, pending an investigation. He spent two months in Fleury-Merogis jail in the south of Paris.
McLaren and Benetton immediately began looking to buy the Renault deal from him, in order to get hold of the potent V10 engines. De Rouvre wanted to sell the whole team, hoping to raise enough to pay his debts. In the end Flavio Briatore managed to get an agreement and bought the team. McLaren withdrew from the fight, unwilling to agree with some of the terms on offer. The Italian paid far less than de Rouvre had done. It was a buyer’s market. The engines would be switched to Benetton in 1995 and that year Michael Schumacher won the World Championship in a Benetton-Renault. Ligier was handed over by Tom Walkinshaw, although he never completed the purchase and the team was eventually sold to Alain Prost.
De Rouvre was gone from F1 after Ligier was sold and in 1995 he lost his job as mayor in the municipal elections. He went on trial on various charges in 1999, with the prosecution asking for a three-year prison sentence, a fine and a 20-year ban on running any company. He ended up with a suspended 18-month sentence, a large fine and a ban from managing a company for 3 years. Such is wealth and influence.
He turned to farming, making a brief return to politics in 2013 in the local council in Chaumont, but resigned in 2015 because he didn’t like the way people treated him…