Mediterranean whodunit grips France

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A murder trial in the south of France reads like an Agatha Christie novel: the whimsical aristocrat, the rough and ready gardener and the wealthy husband who insists he is innocent.

More than 100 witnesses are due to appear at the trial expected to last a month in the Mediterranean city of Montpellier seeking to slice the Gordian knot of violence, romance and intrigue that has gripped France.

The whodunit began on March 11, 2008, when property developer Jean-Michel Bissonnet returned from a Rotary Club meeting to find the body of his wife Bernadette lying in a pool of blood at their plush villa near Montepellier.

The 57-year-old pharmacist had been shot twice in the back with a rifle, and Meziane Belkacem, a gardener who did other odd jobs at the villa, was arrested.

He confessed to having carried out the killing, but on the orders of Bissonnet himself, in exchange for 30,000 euros (40,000 dollars).

The husband denied ordering the killing of "the love of my life", while a psychologist labelled the gardener a "crude" man with a mental age of eight.

"What I did is no good. It's bad. I was taken over by the devil," Belkacem told the court.

The third protagonist, the 85-year-old Viscount Amaury d'Harcourt, from a long line of French nobility, is accused of disposing of the murder weapon, out of friendship for Bissonnet.

"I would have liked to have had a son like Jean-Michel Bissonnet," said the former World War II resistance fighter who, as a younger man, also drove trucks in Africa, prospected for gold and raised boars.

His lawyer describes him as "an adventurer, slightly whimsical."

But both the gardener and the aristocrat tell the same tale: Bissonnet was the murder mastermind.

He allegedly arranged for Belkacem to come to the villa and find the murder weapon, hidden away before his boss went to the Rotary Club, and for him to take the family car in order to make the death look like an aggravated theft.

All that is missing is a motive.

D'Harcourt and Belkacem say the couple were having trouble with their relationship, as corroborated by several witnesses. Would the property developer have lost his cherished villa in the event of a divorce?

But Bissonnet insists he loved his wife and that he had no reason to want to get rid of her. Their harmonious relationship is confirmed by the couple's two sons, as well as by various family friends.

The accused widower is backed up by his father-in-law, while his brother-in-law is convinced of his guilt and has brought a civil suit on top of the criminal trial.

Bissonnet says that D'Harcourt killed his wife because he was unable to repay a 15,000-euro loan and she had refused to lend him any more money.

In court on Thursday, Bissonnet paid homage to "an extraordinary woman, all the sacrifices she made to help me."

"I was happy. For the last 920 days (when he was arrested), I've been asking myself 'why would someone do that, you'd have to be mad?' I had a wife too late, and she was killed too soon."

The trial continues.

© 2010 AFP

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