Dumas jail term shocks French elite into deafening silence

PARIS, Reuters

The silence was deafening.

The day after former Foreign Minister Roland Dumas was sentenced to six months in jail for enjoying the fruits of money illegally extracted from oil giant Elf Aquitaine, France’s establishment nervously held its tongue.

Dumas’s old political allies conspicuously failed to leap to his defence, while the majority of national newspapers reported the facts and kept their commentaries to a bare minimum. And yet, Wednesday’s verdict was an historic event. For the first time in living memory, one of France’s most distinguished elder statesmen was nailed for corruption after a trial that finally shed light on charges of rampant wrong-doing under the rule of late President Francois Mitterrand.

Besides Dumas, four other people were given prison terms totalling 10-1/2 years for their part in the Elf scandal, including the former head of the company, Loik Le Floch Prigent, and Dumas’ one-time lover, Christine Deviers-Joncour.

Perhaps predictably the convicted quintet bemoaned their fate, expressing shock at the severity of the sentences.

“We didn’t kill anyone,” said the slender Deviers-Joncour, who earned 64.5 million francs (US$8.35 million) from Elf between 1989 and 1993 without apparently doing anything for the firm.

“I’m shocked, too shocked, it’s impossible,” said Le Floch-Prigent, who received a 3-1/2 year jail term and needed medical attention after hearing the judgment. “I thought justice was going to triumph, but there is no more law,” he told Le Parisien daily.

More interesting was what was not said. Reporters paced up and down the corridors of power, but no-one was willing to talk.

The silence might have been out of deference to 78-year-old Dumas, a former Resistance fighter who became a Socialist party grandee. Or it might have been because almost all the parties are facing their own legal woes and could not score any political points over Wednesday’s verdict. Only this week former Interior Minister and leading conservative Charles Pasqua was placed under formal investigation in two different inquiries — one concerning illegal party financing and one looking into illegal arms sales.

Former Socialist Finance Minister Dominique Strauss-Kahn also found out this week that he might face prosecution for allegedly entering into a deal to reduce the tax debts of fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld.

That case is bizarrely intertwined with a financing and jobs scam probe which has targeted President Jacques Chirac.

“Caution carried the day,” left-leaning newspaper Liberation said on Thursday, reporting on the lack of official reaction.

Dumas also walled himself in silence. On hearing the judgment in a sweltering Paris courtroom he reportedly told the lawyer beside him: “I don’t understand.”

Since then he has let his legal team do the talking for him and they immediately vowed to appeal against the verdict.

Dumas is renowned for his sharp mind and his sharp tongue, and came to epitomize the arrogance and confidence of the now discredited Mitterrand era.

“(Perhaps) Roland Dumas was also, and above all, convicted because of the bad reputation he so deservedly acquired,” Liberation said in a rare editorial on the trial.