Patrick Henri Devillers, 52, is one of two westerners in China known to have had close business ties to the family of deposed Communist Party politician Bo Xilai. He also had a extremely close relationship with Mr Bo’s wife, Gu Kailai, who is accused of murdering UK businessman Neil Heywood.
“There was an arrest of this Frenchman in relation to a crime in China,” Touch Narouth, police chief in the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh, said. He declined to elaborate.
The purge of Mr Bo, the charismatic party secretary of the inland port of Chongqing, comes during a sensitive transition to the next generation of Communist Party leadership. It has also laid open a world of wealth and intrigue rarely glimpsed by the Chinese public.
Neither Mr Bo nor his wife, Gu, a lawyer, have been seen in public since he was drummed out of office in mid-March.
Mr Devillers first met Mr Bo’s wife in the 1990s in China’s north-eastern port of Dalian – which is twinned with Glasgow – where he was an architect and she was the mayor’s wife. His name was later linked with hers in business ventures in Europe.
Sources briefed on the investigation have said Mr Heywood, who also knew Gu from Dalian in the 1990s, was murdered after he demanded too large a cut when she requested his help in transferring money overseas.
Mr Devillers denied any role in money laundering in a recent interview with French newspaper Le Monde in Cambodia, where he owns a modest property. The spokeswoman at the French embassy in Phnom Penh confirmed Mr Devillers had been arrested.
“We are offering our consular services, are in contact with Cambodian authorities and are following the investigation,” added Bernard Valero, the foreign ministry spokesman in Paris, adding that the embassy had not yet been told why Mr Devillers had been taken into custody.
Mrs Devillers and Gu listed the same address in the Dorset seaside town of Bournemouth in 2000 – the same year as he left his wife in China to return to Europe.
Mr Devillers and his Chinese wife divorced in 2003.
In 2006, Mr Devillers created a Luxembourg-based company, D2 Properties, using the address of Gu’s former law partner in Beijing. D2 Properties took minority stakes in a number of properties in France, Monaco, Martinique and Geneva developed by Mr Devillers’ father.
Before D2 Properties was formed, Gu and Mr Devillers had been co-directors of a UK-based firm, Adad Limited. Registered in 2000 and dissolved in 2003, its business purpose was unclear.
It was not immediately clear whether Mr Devillers would be extradited to China. Cambodia has co-operated with China in past extraditions, notably the deportation of 20 Uighurs, members of a minority ethnic group in western China, who had sought asylum from the United Nations in Phnom Penh in 2009.
Mr Devillers quit China in 2005 and has been living in Cambodia more or less continuously for about six years.
If he were to end up in Chinese hands, it could create a problem for Beijing.
China’s justice system is not used to the kind of scrutiny it would come under were it to try a foreign national for any crime linked to such a politically sensitive case. And it is known that the Communist leadership has been debating how best to handle the case of Mr Bo and his wife.
Mr Bo faces the feared internal party justice system, whose deliberations are carried out in private, and is then expected to be handed to the state courts. His wife is expected to go straight through the state justice system.