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From Ben Barka to Elf, justice turns a blind eye to political elites

Text by Gaëlle LE ROUX

Latest update : 2009-10-19

The Clearstream trial now making its way through the courts is just the latest of many high-profile scandals that have plagued France's political elite in past decades. But justice often seems blind when it comes to prosecuting French officials.

The Clearstream trial that is now under way in the French courts has again shed light on France’s political rivalries, state secrets and the sometimes shadowy links between the French state and its captains of industry. In this latest affair, which some media pundits are calling "Watergate à la Française", former Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin is accused of falsely accusing President Nicolas Sarkozy of receiving kickbacks in connection with the 1991 sale of Taiwanese frigates when the two were political adversaries fighting for control of their party ahead of the 2007 presidential election.  If de Villepin is found guilty he faces a maximum of five years in prison. But he may have little to fear. “French politicians convicted of wrongdoing have in the past been treated with leniency,” says a September 20 piece in The New York Times by Matthew Saltmarsh.


Saltmarsh may have a point.


Of the many high-profile scandals that have plagued the French political elite in past decades, very few high officials have been severely sanctioned while their less-visible associates sometimes get a raw deal.


The Ben Barka affair: France and Morocco in troubled waters


Moroccan opposition leader Mehdi Ben Barka, who sought exile in France after having been condemned to death in his home country, was kidnapped in Paris on October 29, 1965 by two French policemen. His supporters never heard from him again.


The French-led investigation shed the spotlight on various Moroccan protagonists, in particular on a General Oufkir, a loyal servant of King Hassan II. But as for determining any French complicity in the affair, the investigation fell short: the examining magistrates ran into resistance citing security issues and reasons of state.


Finally, on June 7, 1967, one of the French officers who took part in the Ben Barka kidnapping was sentenced to six years in prison; another member of the counter-intelligence services was sentenced to eight years. Both attested that their superiors were aware of Morocco’s plans to eliminate Ben Barka. Documents from French counter-intelligence and the US Central Intelligence Agency, as well as the testimony of a former member of the French secret service decommissioned in 2000, cited the involvement of both the prime minister and the French president offices, partially lifting the veil on the dubious links between the Moroccan royal family and the French state. To date, no member of the French government or top official has been investigated in the affair.

The Elf scandal, a financial imbroglio

A legal inquiry was launched in 1994 involving the alleged cash injections into a struggling textile branch of the Elf oil giant. In the process, Eva Joly, the judge in charge of the inquiry, uncovered a vast network of corruption, implicating politicians as well as the heads of major corporations.


The ramifications of this network and its financial interlinks were extremely complex. Joly, however, focused on evidence of the clandestine financing of political parties in France and abroad and the hundreds of millions of euros that were paid as bribes and kickbacks to politicians, businessmen and intermediaries.


Investigations were launched into the possible roles played by Dominique Strauss-Kahn, a former minister of industry, and Roland Dumas (main photo above), former foreign affairs minister and president of France’s Constitutional council. The case against Strauss-Kahn was dismissed, but Dumas was sentenced to serve six months in prison as well as given a two-year suspended sentence.


Meanwhile, Dumas’ former mistress, Christine Deviers-Joncour, along with Elf CEO Loik le Floch-Prigent and the firm’s director-general, Alfred Sirven, were all handed heavy fines and served time in prison.


Taiwanese frigates – and policy, murder, corruption


As the Elf affair progressed during 2001, judges Eva Joly and Laurence Vichnievsky came across another sensitive file concerning secret kickbacks worth nearly €500 million, paid out in connection with the 1991 sale of six military carriers for €2.4 billion.


What follows is like something out of a James Bond film, involving secrets of state, diplomatic affairs, corruption and even murder – 10 people involved with the frigate sale in one form or another disappeared mysteriously.


Judge Renaud Van Ruymbeke, charged with the investigation, managed to gather evidence against several key players in a web of corruption in Taiwan as well as China. But in France, all attempts to find out who received commissions from the sale were derailed for reasons of national security. All demands for the declassification of documents were in vain, as three successive economic ministers, Laurent Fabius, Francis Mer and Thierry Breton, were opposed to their release.


In 2006, former defence minister Alain Richard accused former President François Mitterand and his prime minister (1993-1995), Edouard Balladur, of involvement.   

The case was dismissed in its entirety in 2008.
Angolagate: the ripe markets of a civil war

Of all the legal and political scandals of recent years, that involving the sale of weapons to Angola – still under judicial review – holds a special significance.


During the 1990s, significant arms traffic was funnelled to Angola, a country in the grip of a bloody civil war. Some 40 people were accused of participation in a trafficking ring worth an estimated €790 million or to have taken bribes from those involved. Charles Pasqua, a former minister of the interior who was at the same time fending off accusations in connection with six other legal cases, and Jean-Charles Marchiani, a regional official, found themselves among the accused. The civil judges in the case have recommended a three-year suspended sentence for Pasqua and 18 months for Marchiani. A judgment will be rendered on October 27.



Date created : 2009-09-25