French Elite on Trial The Sordid Tale of 'Angolagate'

Corruption, arms sales and a civil war in Africa: France's biggest ever bribery scandal sees 42 leading figures of the French business and political world on trial. They are accused of being involved in a murky network said to have facilitated the illegal transport of arms to Angola in the 1990s.
French senator and former Interior minister Charles Pasqua arrives for the opening of the "arms-to-Angola" trial

French senator and former Interior minister Charles Pasqua arrives for the opening of the "arms-to-Angola" trial

Foto: AFP

The story, the actors and the exclusive scenery are the stuff of movies. The cast includes former cabinet ministers, billionaires, financial experts and glamorous celebrities. In other words, a who's who of Paris society. And then there are the requisite chauffeurs, hostesses and a motley collection of characters from the French capital's demimonde.

The action takes place in an inconspicuous luxury home in Paris, on luxury yachts and on board private jets. It revolves around astronomical amounts of cash, in francs and dollars, and a murky network of fictitious companies, offshore bank accounts and people operating under false names. The story is about intrigues, dodges, political maneuvers and the independence of the judiciary system in the face of government pressure. And above all, it's about weapons sales -- to Angola.

The 468-page indictment that attempts to disentangle a shady business deal worth billions may not be a Hollywood script, but it proves that reality can sometimes be far more exciting than any fiction.

It is based on evidence from 150 files, the results of a decade of detailed work by police, prosecutors and investigative judges. It accuses the country's elites of having behaved like unprincipled and greedy war profiteers.

The scandal, known as "Angolagate," goes back 10 years to when the illegal weapons deals were first revealed. Last week 42 defendants in the case finally went on trial before the 11th Criminal Court in Paris. The trappings of the trial are in keeping with its high-profile cast. The defendants sitting in the "Salle des criées," beneath elaborate ceiling murals and chandeliers in the Palace of Justice on the Ile de la Cité, include Jean-Christopher Mitterrand, the 61-year-old son of former President Francois Mitterrand, former Interior Minister Charles Pasqua, 81, and Jacques Attali, 64, a former advisor to Mitterrand who until recently worked for President Nicolas Sarkozy.

The leading role is played by Pierre Falcone, 54, who, according to the prosecution, was the mastermind behind the illegal weapons trade. Co-defendant Arkadi Gaydamak, 56, is currently hoping to embark on a second career as mayor of Jerusalem. He opted to remain in Israel.

A Bitter Proxy War

The illustrious defendants face charges that include illegal arms sales, tax evasion and money laundering. The indictment mentions active bribery, embezzlement of assets and the unlawful acceptance of benefits. The defendants, if found guilty, could face huge fines and up to 10 years in prison.

It takes a step back in time to understand the prosecution's case. The history leading up to the trial goes back to 1993, to the era of political cohabitation when President François Mitterrand, a socialist, dictated the tenets of French foreign policy, while Prime Minister Edouard Balladur, a conservative, ran the government.

By the mid-1990s a bloody, protracted conflict was raging in Angola, a former Portuguese colony, between the troops of President José Eduardo Dos Santos and the forces commanded by his archenemy, Jonas Savimbi, the leader of the anti-communist rebel group UNITA. It was a bitter proxy war in which Dos Santos' Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) was backed by Cuba and Russia, while Savimbi counted on the support of the United States and the Apartheid regime in South Africa.

The United Nations advocated a peaceful solution of the conflict and demanded an arms embargo, a course that France supported. When former Marxist Dos Santos came under military pressure and needed more weapons for his troops, he turned to the French for assistance. The response from the French Foreign Ministry on Quai d'Orsay in Paris was that it could not export weapons to a crisis region.

Dos Santos, becoming desperate, turned to his acquaintance Jean-Bernard Curial, the French Socialist Party's expert on Africa. "France must help us; Mitterrand must send us weapons," Dos Santos told Curial, a military opponent of Apartheid who today runs a small publishing company in the Latin Quarter.

It was no easy task. Nevertheless, according to the prosecution, Curial found a supporter in Jean-Christopher Mitterrand, the president's eldest son. Known as "Monsieur Afrique," the younger Mitterrand had served in his father's administration, from 1986 to 1992, as a special envoy to Africa. Mitterrand junior, mocked in Africa as "Papa-m'a-dit" (Papa-told-me-so), because his diplomatic expertise was more or less limited to his good relationship with his father, had the right connections. The helpful son of the president put Curial in touch with French businessman Pierre Falcone.

The jet-setting Falcone, the key figure in the affair, had his own useful connections, having arranged weapons sales in the past as an advisor to the French government. Today he runs a string of companies stretching from China to South America, is married to a Bolivian former beauty queen and owns property in Phoenix, Arizona. Even in the 1990s, Falcone was a flamboyant party animal, a generous host and a talented dealmaker.

Falcone knew just the right man to handle the discreet shipment of military equipment. Gaydamak, a native Russian and former colonel in the KGB, emigrated to Israel in 1972 and later moved to France. When the Warsaw Pact collapsed, he used his excellent relationships with the former Soviet military elite to go on a shopping spree in the military warehouses of Russia and its allies. The post-Cold War transitional period was wild and rife with bargains.

The Deal of the Century

The order from Angola, or so the prosecution claims, developed into the deal of the century for Falcone and Gaydamak. There was only one snag. It had to be handled tactfully, while circumventing French authorities. To that end, the two men are alleged to have established a front company in Eastern Europe in 1993, which soon turned into a hub for the shipment of arms and military equipment. The contracts and financial transactions, on the other hand, were handled through the offices of Falcone's Paris-based company, Brenco.

It became a flourishing business. The first "emergency delivery" included 30 T-62 tanks, 40 armored personnel carriers, submachine guns, flamethrowers, flak, grenades and ammunition. The next order reads like a catalog of conventional military equipment: 400 tanks and troop carriers, 1,190 trucks, 12 helicopters and 60 ambulances. It also included an assortment of six warships, pontoon bridges and amphibious vehicles.

Special-request items like night-vision devices and bulletproof vests completed the order. A later order consisted of 170,000 anti-personnel mines, an arsenal that vastly increased the number of victims in the Angolan war, in which 500,000 people died between 1975 and 2002. Falcone's shipments enabled Dos Santos to deal a decisive defeat to UNITA.

In his mansion on Avenue Kleber in the 16th arrondissement, Falcone apparently took discreet steps to ensure that his back was covered within the political establishment. In a feudal atmosphere, his employees are said to have handled transfers of funds to inconspicuous foreign bank accounts. Hostesses saw to his business associates' needs while envelopes were being filled with cash in the basement. Sometimes the sums were so large that supermarket bags were needed to hold the money.

Each transaction was carefully recorded and saved as a memo by Falcone's secretary. The data eventually filled 26 floppy disks, which authorities later seized during a search of the premises. It apparently supports the following charges:

* that Jean-Christophe Mitterrand received 14 million francs, paid into Swiss bank accounts, for setting up the deals, in addition to various other perks, including airline tickets, a vacation in Bali or a visit to Falcone's home in Phoenix;

* that former French Interior Minister Charles Pasqua and his confidant, the former French prefect Jean-Charles Marchiani, received $450,000 (€328,000) from Brenco to support Pasqua's European election campaign, in return for providing the necessary diplomatic cover;

* that Jacques Attali, a former advisor to Mitterand, approached then Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine concerning a tax investigation into Falcone's Eastern European company, for which he was later rewarded with a $200,000 (€150,000) fee paid by one of Falcone's companies.

According to the indictment, the Angolan friends of Falcone and Gaydamak also pocketed their share of the spoils from the lucrative arms deals. Dos Santos and at least two dozen government officials are alleged to have received lavish kickbacks and commissions, which the bill of indictment lists as "cash, hotel expenses, vacation and hospital costs," as well as "various gifts." All told, ambassadors, ministers, nine senior military officials and heads of import companies are said to have raked in a grand total of $56 million (€41 million) between 1993 and 2000.

Signs of Appreciation

Dos Santos is alleged to have been paid his money through an account in Panama set up in the name of his daughter Isabel. He also received numerous perks, including stays at the luxury Le Bristol hotel in Paris, travel in private jets, an armored limousine and a few Mercedes. A yacht excursion off the coast of Naples was another of Falcone's tokens of appreciation. According to the prosecution, the five-day cruise cost $115,000 (€84,000).

The politicians, for their part, were apparently happy to return the favors. Gaydamak was awarded the Chevalier de l'Ordre National de Mérite, France's second-highest decoration, allegedly for his assistance in securing the release of hostages. In the same month, a group called France-Afrique-Orient, which was affiliated with Pasqua's political movement, received a donation of more than 1.5 million francs from Falcone's company, Brenco. The Angolan president, Dos Santos, also showed his appreciation when, in 2003, he made Falcone his country’s ambassador to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) -- diplomatic passport included.

The UNESCO post and diplomatic passport, intended as a way of helping Falcone evade the law, came too late. An investigation by tax authorities had already exposed the lucrative business, and the judiciary had already made its move in 2000. Falcone and Mitterrand junior spent a period of time in detention. Gaydamak left the country for Israel where, thanks to his Israeli citizenship, he is safe against extradition, despite international warrants for his arrest.

After returning to the Holy Land, Gaydamak distinguished himself as a patron of the poor and the religious. A billionaire, he pays for vacations on the Red Sea for Israeli rocket attack victims and paid for a new hospital for Orthodox Jews. In addition, he seems to share the passion among newly rich Russians for buying football teams. Gaydamak owns the Beitar Jerusalem club.

All the Defendants Have 'Clean Consciences'

His business partner Falcone and their political helpers remained behind in France, where they now face six weeks of questioning. Dressed in expensive suits, quiet, stoic or smirking, they put their supposedly clean consciences on display -- just as they make a point of flaunting their lapels, decorated with the highest honors of the Republic.

Mitterrand's son Jean-Christophe, released on bail, sees himself as the victim of a hate-filled judge, and Pasqua suspects that the charges are nothing but "a political revenge campaign" launched by his archenemy, former President Jacques Chirac. The satirical weekly newspaper Le Canard enchaîné was probably not too far off when it concluded that the trial was put in motion to spoil Pasqua's chances of winning the presidency back in 2002.

All of the defendants in this case are claiming to be victims. Even arms dealer Falcone insists that he is innocent and is being persecuted. He is a man with a clean conscience, he says, and even though he is in the business of selling guns and grenade launchers, he insists that he has always dealt only with a "legitimate government." Falcone is quick to add that he also organized "shipments of medicines" and sent "trucks containing food" into the crisis region.

It is, however, by no means the case that the mammoth trial in Paris, which is expected to take close to half a year to complete, is a sign that a new France plans to settle scores with the corrupt, old France. On the contrary, the Angolagate trial also troubles the new government.

The court's review of the unsavory practices of the past is in conflict with President Sarkozy's plan to anchor France's long-term economic interests in Angola. Energy companies like Total are betting on the exploitation of oil reserves in this new, booming country. When he paid a visit to his Angolan counterpart Dos Santos in Luanda in May, Sarkozy said that he wanted to "turn the page on the misunderstandings of the past."

After Sarkozy's return to Paris, the Defense Ministry received orders to deal with the scandal before the trial could begin. In a letter to the attorneys for defendant Falcone, Defense Ministry lawyers provided arguments that could be used to defuse the charges of "illegal arms trading." Because the weapons did not cross French territory, the argument went, the laws of the Republic could "not be applied to the activities of Mr. Falcone." Falcone's defense attorneys promptly, but unsuccessfully, argued, in the relevant criminal court that the court was handling a case that has become meaningless, as a result of the minister's letter.

The government's move was not the only attempt to delay the trial. Angola, though not directly involved in the litigation, argued in court for a suspension of the trial. Because the court is handling documents that affect Angola's national security interests, a representative of the African nation said, "public discussion" of the classified facts of the case should not be considered.

So far the presiding judge, Jean-Baptiste Parlos, has not allowed himself to be swayed by either the political pressures or the many petitions from 60 high-profile defense lawyers. Nevertheless, there is still the chance that, in a case the French paper Le Monde calls a "Trial of Titans," the government will in the end prevail over the judiciary.

Next April, Sarkozy plans to host Angolan President Dos Santos in Paris. According to a diplomat at the Foreign Ministry, "Angolagate must be settled by then."

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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