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French scandals back with Elf trial

By ELIZABETH BRYANT, United Press International

PARIS, May 11 (UPI) -- It sounds like a John Le Carre novel: Spies and Swiss bank accounts; envelopes full of cash handed out to politicians regardless of creed or political color; luxury Paris apartments, and mansions in Corsica; bribes in Africa, and treachery in France.

But it's real enough. For the uninitiated, it's the sprawling, four-month trial of ex-heads and associates of the former French oil parastatal Elf Aquitaine.

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This week the trial produced a new sensation: Alfred Sirven directly accused former Elf head Loik Le Floch-Prigent of pocketing some $2.5 million related to business dealings in Venezuela a decade ago. Sirven was Le Floch-Prigent's one-time right hand man.

"I'm going to say something very important ... more than important, serious," Sirven told the Paris court Wednesday, detailing the Venezuela side deal. Sirven also admitted that another $2.5 million found its way to his own Swiss account.

So goes France's largest corruption case in recent history. The trial debuted in March and runs through early July. It took two investigative magistrates eight years of pre-trial work to detail charges in a 657-page report.

When the trial finally got under way the French knew what to expect: this was in effect Elf II. The sensational, and separate Elf I trial in 2001 riveted the nation. It involved company executives, former French Foreign Minister Roland Dumas and his ex-mistress, Christine Deviers-Joncour.

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The defendants in the first trial were all given prison sentences and hefty fines, though an appeals court later acquitted Dumas. But the notoriety had payoffs for Deviers-Joncour -- a former lingerie model-turned-author, who published several books detailing her dealings with Elf and the French government, including one called "The Whore of the Republic."

That the latest court proceedings are again making press headlines offers at least one indication that life is returning to normal in France, after weeks of coverage monopolized by the Iraq war and deteriorating relations with the United States.

Other political scandals are again offering fodder for the French press as well. Among them: the ongoing saga related to tens of thousands of dollars allegedly spent on food and wine when President Jacques Chirac was mayor of Paris.

But critics see the Elf trial as perhaps best illustrating the political excesses and illicit deals between government and private sector in France, during the late 1980s and early

'90s.

A total of 37 people are on trial, for alleged payoffs and illicit funding involving tens of millions of dollars.

Elf was later privatized, merging into Total-Fina-Elf. And this week, the company announced it was now simply called, "Total."

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The trial's highlights include a former French secret service agent. Pierre Lethier was wanted for years in connection with bribes allegedly paid to acquire an eastern German oil refinery in 1992. Lethier finally turned himself in last month, after hiding out in Switzerland and Britain.

Then there is former Elf energy director, Andre Tarallo. Nicknamed "Mr. Africa" because he directed many of the company's extensive dealings on the continent -- including alleged payoffs to African leaders such as Gabon's Omar Bongo. Tarallo bought a mansion in Corsica with $11 million, allegedly skimmed from Elf profits.

Perhaps most inflammatory are unfolding stories of the tight relationship between Elf executives and top French politicians. In early April, Le Foch-Prigent detailed how top members from several parties regularly picked up cashed-stuffed envelopes as "campaign contributions."

For a while, the former Elf head said, the largest slice of the $5 million annual political cake went to Chirac's former Rally for the Republic party. But that changed, he said, after then French President Francois Mitterrand ordered a more balanced distribution of the spoils.

For his part, Sirven admitted to paying off former French Prime Minister Edith Cresson, along with two former German ministers, for the acquisition of the eastern German Leuna oil refinery, more than a decade ago. At the time, Cresson said her payment was for work done by a business she managed.

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There have been scattered apologies for the excesses.

Le Floch-Prigent admitted been swept away by "the folly of grandeur," underscored by his luxurious, $9.3 million apartment in Paris' elegant 16th arrondissement. An apartment, again allegedly bought with funds skimmed from Elf.

"I'm ashamed of participating in this trial," Elf's refinery director, Alain Guillon, said this week.

But there have also been colorful excuses. Asked to explain some $100,000 spent to equip Le Floch-Prigent's kitchen, his former wife Fatima Belaid shrugged. "My ex-husband loved cooking," she told the court.

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