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French elite on trial in 'Angolagate'

Latest update : 2008-10-06

The much-awaited “Angolagate” trial opens on Monday in Paris. High-profile French names, including Jean-Christophe Mitterrand (pictured), are accused of receiving kickbacks for helping a businessman clinch illegal arms-for-oil deals with Angola.

The cast of the infamous “Angolagate” trial which opens on Monday is one worthy of a blockbuster thriller or a high-society Parisian bash. Jean-Christophe Mitterrand, the son of former French President François Mitterrand; one of the former president's advisers, Jacques Attali (a FRANCE 24 columnist); as well as former Interior Minister Charles Pasqua, are in the dock. They are accused of taking part in a vast arms-trafficking network with the Angolan regime in the 1990s.

The scandal has captivated the French media for years and threatens to destabilise diplomatic relations between France and a now peaceful and oil-rich Angola. In May, French President Nicolas Sarkozy flew to Angola to smooth relations with his counterpart, President José Eduardo Dos Santos.

In the eye of the storm are Pierre Falcone, a French businessman, and Arcadi Gaydamak, an Israeli billionaire of Russian origins. They are accused of setting up illegal arms-for-oil deals worth some 790 million dollars. Falcone and Gaydamak acted as go-betweens, selling arms from former Soviet countries to the Angolan regime.

According to the judicial investigation, in the 90s Falcone obtained large loans for the insolvent Angolan government, which promised to repay the loans with future oil revenues.

But that’s not what got the French media smacking its lips over the affair. Falcone is also suspected of bribing French politicians for help, contacts and lobbying.

“The French aren’t interested in what’s at the heart of the trial, the arms trafficking, but in the side issues and the possibility that Falcone paid right-wing and left-wing politicians to facilitate his business,” says Christophe Boisbouvier, an RFI journalist at the Africa desk.

Suspected illegal deals

In 1993, Angola was at war. President José Eduardo Dos Santos needed tanks and ammunition to fight the rebel UNITA, led by Jonas Savimbi. 500,000 Angolans died in the civil war, which ended in 2002.

At the time, France supported UNITA and refused to sell arms to Dos Santos. "France was hostile to Dos Santos, who had knocked at several doors to obtain arms, but Mitterrand and Balladur did not want to supply him with weapons,” Boisbouvier says. (Edouard Balladur was prime minister from 1993-1995.)

According to the judicial investigation, unofficial contacts led Dos Santos to the former Africa advisor of the French Socialist Party, Jean-Bernard Curial, and to Jean-Christophe Mitterrand, the son of the Socialist president. Mitterrand is accused of introducing Dos Santos to Falcone, owner of the company Brenco international. The flamboyant businessman admits working for Dos Santos, clinching arms deals, but Falcone’s defence team insists that he did not traffic arms through France.

However, Boisbouvier notes that "according to French regulations, a French businessman involved in an arms deal, even between two foreign countries, must first apply for an authorisation from the Defence ministry.”

Indeed, in January 2001, French Defence Minister Alain Richard lodged a complaint against Falcone for “breaching arms legislation”.

Falcone faces up to ten years in prison if he is found guilty. His associate Gaydamak, who has begun a political career in Israel, is not expected to appear at the trial.

French elite drawn into the scandal

The 42 defendants facing trial on Monday include many exotic characters, such as a best-selling writer and an opera singer. Some of the more illustrious personalities have attracted much of the media attention. Jean-Christophe Mitterrand is one of them; he is under investigation for receiving money from Falcone. While the son of the former president admits receiving money, he says he received it as payment for advice on petroleum issues and not for facilitating arms deals.

Mitterrand faces up to five years imprisonment for “abetting illicit arms trading”, according to press releases from the Tribunal de Grande Instance court in Paris.

Also in the dock is Charles Pasqua, France’s former top cop, accused of receiving several hundred thousand dollars for lobbying in favour of Angola. He risks up to 10 years in prison for passive complicity. But for Boisbouvier the important question is “whether Pasqua led parallel diplomacy without Balladur and Mitterrand’s knowledge.” Pasqua is expected to attend the trial.

Another high-profile politician, Attali, who recently headed a panel on economic growth for Sarkozy, is also accused of using his influence over other politicians to resolve the fiscal troubles of Falcone and Gaydamak. He risks up to 5 years in jail for passive complicity.

No Angolan officials or politicians, including Dos Santos, have been accused in the trial.

The “Angolagate” trial is expected to last five months.

Date created : 2008-10-06