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World Perspective | EUROPE

Corruption Investigation Tests French Judicial System

November 27, 1998|JOHN-THOR DAHLBURG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PARIS — What has stuck in many people's minds are the custom-made shoes, hand-stitched at a chic shop on the Champs Elysees and carrying a $1,925 price tag.

In a case that has become an acid test of the French political system's ability to go after the high and mighty, Roland Dumas, former foreign minister and current president of the Constitutional Council, has been under investigation since January for possible corruption.

In this country lacking a U.S.-style Supreme Court, Dumas is the top official charged with safeguarding the law. Despite the blizzard of allegations surrounding him, the lion-maned Socialist has refused to quit, pointing out that nothing against him has been proved.

When former President Valery Giscard d'Estaing this month called for him to resign or be forced out, the usually debonair Dumas growled his regret that "duels with swords or pistols are no longer in fashion."

Dumas, a 76-year-old bosom friend of the late President Francois Mitterrand, is being investigated in connection with millions of dollars in bribes paid by the then-state-owned Elf oil company during the high-flying Mitterrand years.

In a new book, "The Whore of the Republic," former mistress Christine Deviers-Joncour, 51, says she was hired in 1989 by Elf specifically to use her wiles on Dumas.

Her biggest chore, she writes, was getting the then-foreign minister to go along with a sale of six French-made warships to Taiwan, a deal Elf was involved in that was guaranteed to make mainland China furious.

Dumas had vetoed the $2.7-billion sale but changed his mind. A $9-million commission was subsequently paid into Deviers-Joncour's secret bank account in Switzerland.

In August 1991, the mistress picked up the shoes at Berlutti on Paris' Right Bank, paying with an Elf company credit card. She sent the purchase to Dumas, who occupies the No. 5 slot in the state hierarchy.

Dumas says he reimbursed Deviers-Joncour for the footwear and vigorously denies having pocketed any dirty money. Indeed, in her book, Deviers-Joncour says the frigate sale went through on orders from Mitterrand's Elysee Palace. However, two investigating magistrates, Eva Joly and Laurence Vichnievsky, aren't satisfied. The Parisian judges clapped the twice-divorced woman into jail for five months to try to get to the bottom of things.

One mystery still unsolved: the origin of payments in cash, which reportedly totaled $600,000, made into Dumas' Parisian bank account from 1991 to 1995. Dumas, a respected lawyer who once represented artists such as Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, claims that the money came from legal fees and the sales of gold ingots and artworks.

The judges have questioned Dumas at least half a dozen times and ordered that his apartment and law office be searched. They may never be able to establish a link between the secret commission paid to his mistress and the deposits--and expensive shoes--received by Dumas.

In that case, the investigation would be stillborn and Dumas would be free to serve out his nine-year term on the Constitutional Council, which he joined in 1995. If the affair had become known several years ago, that might have been the foregone conclusion. But the mood in France has changed so much that even some of Dumas' Socialist comrades believe that he should quit.

Though the French in general deplore the way President Clinton's sexual conduct has been made public, they also have become less tolerant of wrongdoing, or the appearance of it, by men and women who lead their own country.

"For decades in France, there were scandals that were hushed up," said one prominent investigating magistrate, Renaud Van Ruymbeke. "What's new is that affairs come out."

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