French bakery staff get suspended sentences in China

SHANGHAI (AFP) - Three French staff members of a Shanghai bakery chain received suspended jail terms of up to three years after being found guilty by a Chinese court of using flour that was past its expiry date.

The French nationals and several Chinese staff were arrested in 2017 after health inspectors discovered out-of-date flour during a raid on the trendy Farine bakery and coffee shop brand and a company warehouse.

The family of one of the French defendants, Laurent Fortin, had started a petition on calling for his release and pleading with the French government to help, saying he had been made a scapegoat by Farine.

Fortin, who the Shanghai court identified as the chain's production manager, was given a suspended jail sentence of two years and five months, and fined 60,000 yuan (S$12,080.38).

Suspended sentences typically mean the accused is not required to go to jail and may have the term reduced or waived with good behaviour in the interim.

"We're happy about the verdict because he won't go back to jail. We understand the decision. We are grateful to China. We are patient," Fortin's brother David told AFP in France.

He added that he was not sure when his brother would be able to return to France.

The arrests came after a former employee posted video on Chinese social media alleging that Farine was using out-of-date flour imported from France.

Fortin was released in January last year shortly before a visit to Beijing by French President Emmanuel Macron, but had to remain in China pending a resolution of the case.

The other French defendants were identified by the court as Marion Claudia Christine Tuduri, who received a suspended sentence of three years and 150,000 yuan fine, and Damien Joseph Armand Ortal, who got two years and two months and a 50,000 yuan fine.

None of the defendants were available for comment after the ruling.

The owner of the Farine group, a successful local French entrepreneur named Franck Pecol, was not in China at the time of the arrests and is believed to be in France.

The shops run by Farine, which means "flour" in French, were popular hangouts for expats and wealthy Chinese consumers in Shanghai, offering traditional French breads and pastries.

They closed in the wake of the scandal.

David Fortin previously told AFP that his brother was held in tough conditions without a bed or chair at the start of his initial incarceration.

He had faced up to 15 years in prison.

Of five Chinese defendants, three received suspended sentences of up to three years and two were spared punishment.