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Questions raised about French links to Saddam

Published on 13/10/2005

PARIS, October 13 (AFP) - A judicial investigation into two high-ranking former French diplomats -- both suspected of benefitting from the largesse of Saddam Hussein's Iraq -- has cast a spotlight on the often ambiguous relations between Paris and the former dictator.

The affair also casts a shadow over France’s Iraqi policy and raises suspicions about the complicity of top political figures, according to French analysts and newspapers.

“It is at the very top of the state, where no-one can have failed to be aware of these transgressions … and whose zealous servants these men were, that ultimate responsibility resides,” said the left-wing daily Libération on Thursday.

“These suspicions will knock a deep hole in the image of French diplomacy,” said Le Monde. “Even the most indulgent will wonder about the risks of a pro-Arab policy that was at times wilfully blind.”

On Wednesday Jean-Bernard Mérimée, 68, France’s representative on the UN security council from 1991 to 1995, was placed under judicial investigation by judge Philippe Courroye on suspicion of benefitting from Iraqi money.

Last month Serge Boidevaix, 77, a former number two at the foreign ministry, was placed under investigation on a similar count.

Both are accused of “influence-peddling” and “active corruption of foreign officials” in breach of the “oil-for-food” programme which was run by the UN from 1996 to 2003 in order to control Iraq’s petrol revenue.

The programme is the centre of a vast international scandal, centring on the use of oil vouchers granted by Baghdad to foreign personalities deemed to be well-disposed to the regime.

The French foreign ministry has given assurances that the judicial investigation focuses on “private activities” carried out by the two former senior officials.

But Boidevaux told Le Monde that he had been in “constant touch” with the foreign ministry, which he said was fully aware of his Iraqi activities.

Foreign ministry spokesman Jean-Baptiste Mattei also sought to refute any suggestion of a link between the two investigations and France’s firmly-held opposition to the US-led invasion of Iraq.

“The reasons which led France not to participate in the war in Iraq had to do with our conception of international law,” he said.

But several commentators nonetheless underlined the often ambiguous relations that France maintained with the government of Saddam Hussein, which Paris supported through its long war with Iran and regarded as a key economic partner.

The name of former Gaullist interior minister Charles Pasqua has notably been mentioned by the US Senate as one of several public figures implicated in the corruption allegations — a charge he has forcefully denied.

For Jean-Yves Haine of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, “the essential arguments deployed by French diplomacy against the war in Iraq retain their validity.” But with the investigations, “France’s position looks less pure,” he said.

Barthelemy Courmont of the Institute for International and Strategic Relations in Paris said that “the enquiry is at too early a stage for us to be able to tell what the repercussions will be, but there is certain to be some fall-out.”

But Courmont also pointed out that the US has an interest in playing up the problems of the oil-for-food programme and undermining the credibility of opponents of the war such as France.

Copyright AFP

Subject: French news