Elf: no place for pixies
Current political scandals have seriously discredited France's ruling caste. While the Gaullist RPR party slush fund scam centers around president Chirac, a gigantic sleaze case engulfs both the right and the left, and it's called "l'affaire Elf".
An eight-year investigation into a multi-million dollar web of corruption centred around the French oil group Elf officially concluded in February, opening the way for the formal prosecution of top-level political and business figures named in the case.
Magistrates in charge of the investigation have informed the 42 suspects that the evidence against them is ready for forwarding to state prosecutors.
Among those facing charges for syphoning vast amounts of funds from the formerly state-owned company in the early 1990s are its former president Loik Le Floch-Prigent, 58, and his number two Alfred Sirven, 75, who was extradited to France from the Philippines a year ago.
Also named are Andre Tarallo, 74, who won a reputation as Elf's "Mr Africa" for his contacts with the continent's leaders, and the former interior minister Charles Pasqua, 74, a Gaullist right-winger alleged to have used Elf corporate jets for political and private travel.
German businessman Dieter Holzer and former French intelligence agent Pierre Lethier are suspected of taking secret commissions worth EUR 39 million for helping arrange Elf's purchase in 1992 of the Leuna oil refinery in eastern Germany.
And Nadhmi Auchi, a British-Iraqi multi-millionaire, is accused of taking kickbacks worth around EUR 45 million for his role as intermediary when Elf bought the Spanish oil firm Ertoil in 1991.
Under French law, state prosecutors will examine the case against the accused, then issue their recommendations to the examining magistrates, who have the final decision whether to press charges. Any trial would not take place before next year.
The allegations all date from before Elf's privatisation in 1994, and hark back to an era in which French governments used the company as an arm of foreign policy - notably in Africa, where many of its most lucrative investments were based.
According to investigators, the company built up a multi-million dollar slush fund which it was able to draw on - either for its own, the French government's or third parties' accounts - in order to secure contracts and establish networks of influence.
Sirven is alleged to have masterminded the slush fund between 1989 and 1993 via Elf's Geneva-based subsidiary Elf-Aquitaine International.
Flown back from the Philippines amid a fanfare of publicity last February, he was convicted alongside Le Floch-Prigent and former foreign minister Roland Dumas in May in a separate - but related - trial, springing from the Elf investigations.
They were all found guilty of conniving in passing on illicit financial favours to Dumas via his girlfriend Christine Deviers-Joncour, who was also convicted. All are appealing against jail terms, and the appeal was due to be re-heard in March.
But the appeal was postponed after Loik Le Floch-Prigent was hospitalised in Lebanon last month suffering from liver and pancreas problems. His lawyer argued before the court that the hearing was "inconceivable in his absence" while Dumas' lawyer called in vain for the hearing to continue.
As in the Dumas trial, the main criminal charge weighing against the 42 suspects in the main Elf case is "misuse of corporate funds," a catch-all accusation that French judges have regularly resorted to in the last decade in their attempts to root out corruption in the political and business elite.
The judge leading the Elf investigation, Eva Joly, has won a fearsome reputation as a crusader against the venality of the French ruling classes, and helped establish the independence of the magistrature against outside interference.
But in March she announced she had decided to return to her native Norway, to take up post as an anti-corruption adviser to the government, and to leave the elite, but small, group of French investigating judges spearheading the fight against corruption.
In one of many interviews at the time of her resignation, Joly said she had been the victim of mysterious harassment, including the burglary of her home and office, being followed and the interference with her computer files, and said her official judicial assistant, a court clerk, had also had his home burgled.
Two other affairs linked to Elf remain under investigation.
In the so-called frigates affair, Sirven is alleged to have been asked by the military electronics company Thomson to use his lobbying network to make France drop its veto to the sale of six warships to Taiwan. He allegedly paid Deviers-Joncour to try to influence Dumas.
And magistrates are also looking at a list of around 40 senior French figures alleged to have received sums from Elf-Aquitaine International.
Elf was privatised after the election of a right-wing government in France in 1993 and now forms part of TotalFinaElf, one of the world's top oil companies.
Additional reporting from AFP.