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Here in America we’ve had our share of scandals in high places – our president and Monica, of course – but if you take a look at the sentences handed down this week against France’s former foreign minister, Roland Dumas, you can see we’re still a pretty provincial lot at heart.

At the venerable age of 78, silver-haired elegant Roland Dumas has been convicted of influence peddling and sentenced to six months in prison for the role he played in misappropriation of nearly $10 million in government funds. The six-month trial also saw the sentencing of two top officials of the one-time state-owned giant oil company Elf Aquitaine, the firm for which Dumas was charged with receiving illegal funds from while he was foreign minister, between 1989 and 1992. The court also handed down a two-year suspended sentence to Dumas.

Sentenced also for her involvement – three years, half of which was suspended – in the case was Dumas’ former mistress, Christine Deviers-Joncour, cited by prosecutors as having cleared the tidy sum of $9 million from Elf for her work as a lobbyist after Dumas had gotten her a job at the company. Dumas himself benefited rather agreeably from her position at Elf, as the company lavished some generous perks like a luxury Left Bank apartment, and money for her to give her benefactor a dozen antique Greek statuettes and a pair of Italian custom-made boots.

Dumas was ordered to pony up a fine of more than $130,000, while Deviers-Joncourt was fined more than $195,000. She was first arrested in connection with what was going to grow into one of the country’s greatest scandals. On her release in 1987 from preventive detention, she wrote – or rather had ghostwritten, judging from its florid, pop-journalistic style – a book with certainly the catchiest title going in French publishing that year: “La Putain de la Republique” (which translates simply and literally as “Whore of the Republic”).

Her life as recounted in her book is a pretty murky, unsavory affair, in which she sets forth as prime villain – not Dumas – but the one-time second-in-command of Elf Aquitaine, Albert Sirven, a man whom she claims made her do all the wrong things for which she is charged. Charismatic, she calls him. He was a fugitive from justice for six years, finally being captured in the Philippines after an 11-month manhunt that took investigators through more than 20 cities, coconut groves, cattle ranches and, Heaven help us, even shrimp farms. The 74-year-old Sirven was put on a flight to Germany, where authorities held him for four days in a futile effort to question him about yet another scandal involving Elf and bribes allegedly paid in connection with the sale of an oil refinery in formerly-communist East Germany.

Sirven, whose testimony was eagerly awaited by the court and the media, not only refused to testify, but also rejected appearing in court to hear the verdict. He received the heaviest sentence: four years in prison and a fine of close to $261,000.

What makes the whole Elf affair so particularly scandalous is the way the French government was involved at the highest levels. Dumas, a Resistance fighter during World War II, became after the war a highly successful lawyer enjoying the likes of Giacometti and Picasso as clients. At the same time, he developed his friendship with Francois Mitterand until he was appointed first, European Affairs minister under Mitterand’s presidency, then twice held the portfolio of Foreign Minister, from 1984 to 1986, and from 1988 to 1993, holding that post during the Gulf War and the Maastricht negotiations. When his role in the Elf case finally hit the media, he was forced to resign as head of the French Constitutional Council, France’s highest judicial authority – a post roughly equivalent to that of Chief Justice of the Supreme Court in our country.

International affairs mixed in with Elf’s kickback schemes when Sirven paid Deviers-Joncour a $7 million commission — on top of her salary and other perks — to win Dumas over to giving approval for a $2.7 billion sale of six frigates to Taiwan, despite France having an agreement with mainline China to sell no armaments to Taiwan. The frigate sale is still a matter of an ongoing inquiry.

Of course, it is well known that the late President Mitterand, used Elf money to help finance the re-election in 1994 of Germany’s chancellor, his friend Helmut Kohl. And on it goes. Mitterand’s eldest son was thrown into the slammer for three weeks this winter pending payment of bail for an investigation on suspicion of arms trafficking in Angola and money-laundering. Currently, magistrates are investigating how political parties benefited in the 1980s and early 1990s from kickbacks from public-works contractors. This was when Jacques Chirac, now president of France, was mayor of Paris.

Chirac, though, can relax for the time being, as Roland Dumas, in his last post as head of the Constitutional Council, ruled in 1999 that an incumbent president has immunity not just from prosecution but from questioning. Now, let’s see, can Chirac now pardon the man who may have saved his political career? In the meantime, Dumas remains free as his lawyers file an appeal.

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