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Peter Humi: The trial on all of France's lips

Dumas, sentenced to six months in jail for corruption  

By CNN Paris Bureau Chief Peter Humi

Q: Roland Dumas is the former French foreign minister who served in the late president Francois Mitterrand's administration. What was the court case all about?

HUMI: Dumas was a friend and confidante of Mitterrand but was found guilty of corruption and of illegally taking gifts. He was found to have used his office to influence the appointment of Loik Le Floch-Prigent as chief executive officer of the state-run oil giant Elf. He was also found guilty of obtaining employment at Elf for his then mistress Christine Deviers-Joncour.

Q: What was her role in the affair?

HUMI: She too was found guilty despite denying during the trial that her employment was purely fictitious. The three-judge-panel decided she had received 45 million francs ($6.5 million) to lobby Dumas in to persuading him to agree to the controversial sale of six frigates to Taiwan by another state-run company called Thompson-CSF. The sale of the frigates was not part of the trial but is being investigated separately by prosecutors.

Q: How did the scandal break?

HUMI: Deviers-Joncour wrote a book called "Whore of the Republic" which spilled the beans on the whole affair and launched the ensuing scandal. She openly co-operated with investigators after coming clean. From 1989 to 1993, while employed by Elf, Deviers-Joncour received a total of 64 million francs ($9.25 million) of which 2.7 million francs was salary. She bought a 17 million franc Paris apartment and spent 300,000 francs on antique statuettes which she gave as a gift to Dumas. Elf apparently agreed to the enormous expenditure believing it a worthwhile investment to further business and political interests.

Q: What was Dumas' defence?

HUMI: He had pleaded not guilty to the charges. He claimed he had no influence over the appointment of Elf senior managers nor in Elf's hiring of his former mistress. He admitted receiving the statuettes but said he did not know the source of the money with which they were bought.

Q: And Deviers-Joncour?

HUMI: Since her "tell all" book she co-operated with prosecutors.

Q: Was anyone else on trial?

HUMI: Yes, five others, who were on charges of misusing company funds. The more significant of those found guilty were: Alfred Sirven, 74, the former number two at Elf who was sentenced to four years in prison and also ordered to pay a fine of two million francs. He controlled Le Floch-Prigent and masterminded the hiring of Deviers-Joncour the judges found. He disappeared (according to the French media with "millions of francs") in 1997. He was captured in the Philippines in February after four years on the run and extradited back to France but refused to testify during the trial.

Then there's former Elf President Le Floch-Prigent, 57, who was sentenced to three-and-a-half years in prison and ordered to pay a two million franc ($260,800) fine after being found guilty of complicity over the illegal payments.

Q: What does the public make of it all?

HUMI: Another day, another scandal. The trial underlined the public view of misdeeds in high places. Recently Jean-Christope Mitterrand, the son of the late president, was held in jail under suspicion of arms trafficking and corruption. The then Mayor of Paris Jean Tiberi was under a cloud for financial illegalities and president Jacques Chirac himself is implicated in an illegal funding scam dating back to the time he was Mayor of Paris.

Q: What is the significance of this verdict?

HUMI: This is the nail in the coffin to Dumas' reputation. Roland Dumas was for many years considered a suave, talented politician. He rose to his position largely through his friendship with Mitterand. During the Gulf War (and other global crises), he was the voice of France What we're seeing is the judiciary flexing its muscles a bit more or being allowed to flex its muscles a bit more.

(French Prime Minister Lionel) Jospin, during the last parliamentary elections in 1997 emphasised the independence of the judiciary. As a result, we have seen a recent spate of leading public figures and politicians, including Mitterand's son, Jean-Christophe, facing charges of (corruption) ... The French are not upset by what the Anglo-Saxons would consider sex scandals. But when a relationship goes beyond sex, and it involves money and peddling of influence, that is obviously unacceptable to the French.

Q: How, if at all, may the outcome of this trial affect historians' appraisal of the Mitterand era?

Humie: A lot of scandals are emerging from the 14 years that Mitterand was in power. (The late president's) reputation as an extremely skillful poltiician is certainly enhanced by the fact that he survived 14 years in power without ever really being implicated in too many scandals. He knew how to use the people around him.

• Elf Aquitaine
• Thales, formerly Thomson-CSF
• French Foreign Ministry
• Francois Mitterrand

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