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Sarkozy aid 'comes clean' on murky African diplomacy

Who is the man claiming to have handed former French president Jacques Chirac and presidential hopeful Dominique de Villepin millions in cash from African heads of state?


When Robert Bourgi was presented with the Legion of Honour – France’s highest civilian decoration – in September 2007, President Nicolas Sarkozy said he was grateful for the opportunity to reward one of France’s most loyal servants. However, less flattering words have been used to describe the man who has since admitted to handing former president Jacques Chirac millions in cash from African presidents. In an August 2009 profile in the daily Le Monde, unnamed diplomats accused Bourgi of willingly sowing conflict between French and African leaders only to later come to the rescue and reconcile the two sides.

Chirac and his former prime minister, Dominique de Villepin, who was also named in the payoff affair, have denied wrongdoing and said they would sue Bourgi for defamation. But before the startling allegations of illegal cash donations, Bourgi was already a controversial figure in France’s shady parallel diplomacy in Africa. His close relationships with the Bongo presidential dynasty in Gabon, as well as with ousted Ivorian president Laurent Gbagbo, have made him an all-too-easy target for French journalists.

From Dakar to Paris

Born in the Senegalese capital of Dakar, Robert Bourgi, 66, was the son of a wealthy Lebanese textile exporter. Raised in a Western Africa that was barely awakening from its French colonial past, he became a lawyer and taught law in Benin, Mauritania and then the Ivory Coast. While teaching in the Ivorian commercial capital of Abidjan he met Gbagbo, at the time a history professor. However, it was his father’s relationship with Jacques Foccart, former French president Charles De Gaulle’s “man in Africa”, that eventually earned him influence among the continent's most powerful men.

Foccart, who helped De Gaulle maintain France’s sphere of influence over its former colonies after the fires of independence spread across Africa in the 1960s, took Bourgi under his wing. The mentorship established, Bourgi went on to become an adviser on Africa to Jacques Chirac in the 80s, first when he was the mayor of Paris and then as France’s president. When Foccart died in 1997 Bourgi inherited his unofficial job as France’s backroom dealmaker in Africa. This job included, according to Bourgi, delivering briefcases full of cash to fund Chirac’s re-election campaign, and – at least on one occasion – djembe drums stashed with banknotes.

Perpetuating 'Françafrique'

The controversial account of cash hand-offs focused on the role played by former prime minister Villepin. Bourgi described in detail how, after years of loyalty and “dozens of millions” of euros, he was insulted by Villepin in 2005. This spurred him to take his talents and influence to Villepin's rival Nicolas Sarkozy, then presidential hopeful, who welcomed him with open arms. According to French daily Libération, Sarkozy asked Bourgi to sit with his family during his 2007 inauguration ceremony. A few months later, the new president offered Bourgi the Legion of Honour medal.

Bourgi’s revelations on Villepin’s role took place on the eve of a Paris appeals court verdict in the Clearstream affair. Judges on Tuesday will say whether Villepin helped orchestrate a smear campaign against Sarkozy. Villepin has said that Bourgi’s allegations amount to a counter-attack aimed at derailing his 2012 presidential bid.

Bourgi said he went on to work for Sarkozy, “but without the ‘suitcases’ funding system”. Analysts say that, suitcases or not, Bourgi continues to represent the murky dealings with ex-colonies often referred to by the portmanteau “Françafrique”. Speaking to FRANCE 24, Vincent Hugeux, a journalist at French weekly L'Express and an Africa expert, questioned Bourgi’s “late and selective” revelations. By hiring Bourgi, Hugeux suggested, Sarkozy was knowingly “perpetuating obsolete practices” in parallel diplomacy.

Hugeux said that, just months after joining Sarkozy’s team, Bourgi succeeded in having Bruno Joubert fired from his job as the boss of the Africa office at the Elysée Palace. According to the journalist at L'Express, Joubert was pushing for a definite end to the infamous Françafrique policies.


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