The French Senate stripped billionaire industrialist senator Serge Dassault of parliamentary immunity on Wednesday, clearing the way for him to face possible criminal charges for allegedly buying votes.
The decision by a Senate committee means that UMP senator Dassault, 88, can be taken into custody for interrogation by judges investigating allegations dating from his 14 years as mayor of Corbeil-Essonnes, a Paris suburb.
The judges suspect Dassault of operating an extensive system of vote-buying that influenced the outcome of three mayoral elections in Corbeil in 2008, 2009 and 2010, which were won either by Dassault or by his successor and close associate Jean-Pierre Bechter, the current mayor of Corbeil.
Dassault is ranked by Forbes magazine as France’s 4th richest man and the 69th richest in the world, with an estimated fortune of 13 billion euros. He heads Dassault Group, which owns France’s prestigious conservative newspaper “Le Figaro” and holds a majority stake in Dassault Aviation, which makes business and military aircraft including the Rafale fighter jet.
Senator Dassault announced earlier this week that he had requested the lifting of his own immunity. This followed public criticism of the Senate’s earlier refusals to do so.
A bloc of communist senators and their allies called the move “a first step towards transparency”.
“This decision is not a judicial decision and does not presume the guilt of the parliamentarian in question,” the bloc said in a press release. “It’s about allowing the judicial system to do its work independently and respecting the republican principle of separation of powers.”
The result of the 2008 vote, won by Dassault, was invalidated by the Council of State after the body which oversees public administration discovered a series of payments that could have influenced the outcome of the election.
That ruling did not require the same burden of proof as a criminal prosecution for vote-buying would, but formal charges against Dassault seemed likely.
Bechter has already been charged, as has Cristela de Oliveira, a former official in the mayor’s office accused of allocating council flats to families in return for backing Dassault or Bechter.
Dassault, who had been mayor of the formerly Communist-run municipality from 1995, has admitted using his vast personal fortune to help many individuals and organisations in the town but denies that any payouts were made in return for guaranteed support at the ballot box.
The vote-buying investigation has been linked—by the media but not publicly by the judges—to two shootings that took place in Corbeil last year and are being investigated as attempted murders.
The case has also triggered allegations of attempted extortion and intimidation, both by and against Dassault.
Two men who claim to have been paid hundreds of thousands of euros by Dassault to help organise the alleged vote-buying have told the media of a well-oiled electoral machine that targeted poorer families from immigrant backgrounds.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP)
Date created : 2014-02-12