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Former French minister, UMP official convicted

Published on 16/02/2004

PARIS, Feb 16 (AFP) - A former French defence minister and an official in President Jacques Chirac's governing party were Monday convicted of illegal party funding and money laundering by a court in Paris.

Francois Leotard was found guilty of using a fake bank scheme in 1995 to inject money into his now-defunct Republican Party and was given a 10-month suspended jail sentence.

Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres, spokesman for Chirac’s Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) party, was fined EUR 15,000 (USD 20,000) for helping him disguise the operation while he was Leotard’s cabinet director.

The verdict came just weeks after the January 30 conviction of Alain Juppe, Chirac’s right-hand man and former prime minister who currently heads his centre-right UMP party, on similar graft charges.

Leotard and Donnedieu de Vabres left the court out a back door without making any comment. Their lawyers did not immediately say whether they would appeal, as Juppe has done.

A businessman, Ahmed Chaker, who played a key role in the financing operation, was given a four-year prison term, with two years suspended. Another entrepreneur, Alain Afflelou, was acquitted.

Leotard, 61, served in two right-wing government, first as culture minister from 1986 to 1988, then as defence minister from 1993 to 1995.

Before retiring from politics in 1998 to fight the graft charges, he led the centre-right Union for French Democracy, which is allied with the UMP.In 2001, he was named EU envoy to Macedonia to help resolve an ethnic conflict in the Balkan nation.

The court Monday convicted Leotard of setting up a fake loan with an Italian establishment, the Fondo sociale di cooperazione europea, to hide the transfer of 760,000 euros to his party that in fact came from a hidden prime ministerial fund that the Socialist government did away with in 2001.

Although the verdict will have little effect politically on Leotard, the same cannot be said of Donnedieu de Vabres, who has thrown his lot in with Chirac and the UMP.

The 49-year-old party spokesman, who had to give up a junior foreign ministry portfolio in charge of European affairs to face the charges, risks being replaced as the public face of the UMP, even if the absence of a prison term means he can stay on as a member of parliament.

His conviction, in particular, will also likely come back to bite Chirac, who is already struggling to keep control of the UMP following Juppe’s fall.

The UMP chief has said he will likely hand over the reins in a few months to better fight his own conviction, which related to having companies illegally fund the UMP’s precursor, the Rally for the Republic party, by employing party members while he was Paris City Hall financial director and Chirac was mayor in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Chirac, who has used his presidential immunity to dodge legal scrutiny of his own involvement in that case, fears that, if Juppe leaves, France’s immensely popular interior minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, will step up to challenge him at the polls in 2007.

The accumulated smell of scandal hanging over the centre-right may also deal a blow to the government in regional elections to be held next month.


                                                              Subject: France news