The socialist in question is Roland Dumas, 75, former foreign minister (1988-93), former close friend of President Mitterrand, and now the fifth most senior political figure in France. He is president of the Constitutional Council, the body which, amongst other things, pronounces on the honesty of French elections and politicians.
His lavish lifestyle, and that of his mistress, has long been the subject of polite speculation. In November last year his mistress, Christine Deviers- Joncour, 51, former wife of another minister and political opponent, was placed in custody. She admits taking huge "commissions" (bribes) of at least pounds 6m to influence his ministerial decisions on arms sales, especially a controversial sale of six frigates to Taiwan in 1991-92.
In the next two weeks Mr Dumas will almost certainly be placed under investigation for "receipt or aiding and abetting the receipt of embezzled company funds". He was due to meet the investigating judges this week, but the appointment will be put back to allow him to convalesce from an operation. The case creates a possible constitutional crisis: can Mr Dumas remain the supreme arbiter of honesty in politics while under examination for dishonesty himself? On the other hand, if he is forced to resign, does not that undermine his right to be presumed innocent?
The company funds in question belonged to the largest company in France, the oil firm Elf, which acted as an agent for the French arms maker Thomson in the sale of the frigates. Mr Dumas blocked the sale on the grounds that it would damage French relations with China. Later, the then socialist government mysteriously changed its mind (but not before squaring Peking).
Mr Dumas denies receiving so much as a centime or a shoe-lace from the frigate sale. He admits that his pounds 1,100 shoes were bought for him on a Carte Bleue credit card given to his mistress by Elf. But he says that she was only settling the account for him and that he repaid her later. The shoes were, he explains, designed and made to measure by the Italian company Berluti to help cure an orthopaedic complaint.
The investigating judges have evidence, however, that it was Mr Dumas who persuaded Elf to take on his mistress as a "public relations consultant". Her only duty appears to have been to lobby her lover. For this, and attending two meetings, pounds 6m was deposited by Elf in her Swiss bank account. Ms Deviers- Joncour also ran up bills of pounds 200,000 in one year on the company's credit card. Her purchases included many expensive items from Hermes Hommes.
She has admitted to the judges that she was paid by Elf to influence Mr Dumas, but claims she never succeeded in doing so, and that he never received a penny. Nonetheless, the investigators wish to ask the former foreign minister about the pounds 1m in cash paid into his bank account during this period.
In an interview with Le Figaro last week, Mr Dumas alleged he was the victim of a "wide-ranging political operation, seeking, through me, to destroy the heritage of Francois Mitterrand". But who might be behind such an operation? Or who does Mr Dumas blame?
The fact that a senior socialist politician is being investigated while the socialists are in power is novel in itself. It suggests that Lionel Jospin's government is keeping its promise to end political interference with the judicial system. On the other hand, it probably suits Mr Jospin not to rescue Mr Dumas. The Prime Minister's clean image has something to gain from the posthumous disgrace of Mitterrandism. Mr Dumas said in his Figaro interview that he had received many warm messages of support, but none from Mr Jospin.
The Dumas saga is intriguing because of the rather po-faced refusal of most of the French press to pronounce the M-word: mistress. There is a convention on French newspapers that the private lives of public figures should remain private. With one or two exceptions, all press coverage of the Dumas story had referred to Ms Deviers-Joncour as his "friend" or "close friend". Although the inference is clear, it is difficult to tell the story properly without stating that Mr Dumas and Ms Deviers- Joncour, though both married, were accepted in Paris as long-time lovers. When Mr Dumas was foreign minister, she attended private or semi-official dinners for foreign dignitaries, including Mikhail Gorbachev.
The affair of the Taiwan frigates is a grubby corner of a much wider canvas of corruption, political influence and lucrative cross-connections between business, state enterprises and politicians, of both left and centre right. If Mr Dumas's involvement is proved, the stain of corruption will have come closer to the throne of Mitterrand than ever before.
In the meantime, France has been fascinated, not so much by the price of Mr Dumas's soul, as the price of his soles. The satirical paper Le Canard Enchaine carried a striking cartoon last week. It showed a bemused President Jacques Chirac meeting Mr Dumas, but looking resolutely at the ceiling, saying to himself repeatedly: "I will not look at his shoes. I will not look at his shoes."Reuse content