Something rotten on the Riviera

Michel Mouillot, mayor of Cannes, is in prison. His arrest followed an elaborate operation involving French and British police, a drug dealer and a million francs in a suitcase. Did it also involve a conspiracy by Paris party leaders? Mary Dejevsky reports

Michel Mouillot is a soft-featured, mildly dashing man of 53, who used to be marketing director for Pernod-Ricard. In Cannes, the celebrated French Riviera resort of which he is mayor, his reputation is part dandy, part dictator - a PR wizard who thinks nothing of posing for the camera with a tiny dog in his arms while he charms old and young with his promises.

Now the mayor of Cannes is in prison. He was arrested almost four weeks ago in connection with a corruption case that combines all the elements of a period thriller: a clutch of British businessmen, a small-time drug dealer, the combined might of Scotland Yard and the French intelligence service, two of Europe's premier hotels and a suitcase of used notes.

While the bare facts are undisputed, the whys and wherefores of what happened are a good deal more complicated, and have left many in and around Cannes speculating that Mouillot is the victim of a high-level political plot - a plot, moreover, which is not yet played out and could still be thwarted.

Act One of the drama took place earlier this summer. The scene was La Croisette, the world-famous waterfront boulevard at Cannes where the palm branches wave gently in the sea breeze, the sky is a deep blue, the sea is calm and teeming with yachts, and the usual crowds - old rich, new rich, and not rich at all, who reclaim their territory after the annual film festival - throng the broadwalk.

Of all the ostentatiously luxurious hotels that line La Croisette, the most celebrated is the Carlton, with its white, wedding-cake facade that gleams in the sunshine. However, for the managers of the Carlton's Casino Club, the British company London Clubs International,something was not quite right.

They had been concerned for some time that the takings of the club, one of only three licensed casinos in Cannes, were falling. They had also noted that the Croisette casino, further down the waterfront (and owned, incidentally, by the city council), and the casino of the almost-as-luxurious Noga Hilton hotel had both started advertising fruit machines, along with the blackjack and roulette.

The tut-tutting when these additional gambling facilities first appeared can only be imagined: "But fruit machines, really my dear, fruit machines, in Cannes casinos! What is the place coming to?" Cannes residents and habitues have spent the best part of 10 years - perhaps the best part of the century - lamenting the decline in the quality of the visitors, but here was irrefutable proof that the riff-raff had arrived.

The reluctance of the Carlton Casino Club's managers to follow suit by installing fruit machines must also be imagined, for they will not talk about it. They appear to have decided, however, that if they could not beat the competition, they had at least to join it. So they applied to the town hall for the requisite licence. The message came back that fruit machine licences had a price, and that the price to the Carlton Casino Club was 3 million francs - in cash.

Act Two followed in July. The scene shifted to London, to the foyer of the Ritz hotel. Scotland Yard, in a joint operation with French police, had staked out the reception area. At 9.30 am on 17 July the representative of London Clubs made his agreed rendez-vous and handed over a suitcase containing the first 1-million-franc instalment.

At once, the police swooped. A small-time drug dealer called Daniel Teruel, aged 46, from the Cannes area, was arrested. The couple to whom he was to have passed the money, however, had vanished from their London hotel. This was the only hitch in an operation that, at least for the police, went entirely according to plan.

Act Three followed at once. Later the same day, back in Cannes, at the stately town hall which looks out over the old port, police arrested the head of the mayor's private office and Michel Mouillot's 30-year-old son, Gilles, who is a city councillor. Both had been implicated by Teruel. A warrant was out also for the arrest of the mayor, and for Aldo Sonnino and his wife, who were supposed to have picked up the money and brought it back to Cannes. Both the mayor and the Sonninos were later arrested at their homes.

The following day, the mayor was formally accused of "passive corruption" - a delightful expression meaning that the actual transaction was carried out by others - in the Carlton Casino Club case and transferred to prison at nearby Grasse, where he has languished ever since. The police have described him as "not very cooperative". His lawyer says he believes his "political enemies" conspired against him.

Of the multitude of facts made public, Mouillot disputes only two. He insists that the sum involved was "only 1 million francs as a contribution to political campaigning" and that, far from being solicited, the money was "offered" by London Clubs. As proof, he cites the fact that the city council had already approved the fruit machine licence on 14 July - that is, before any money was paid.

Even without Mouillot's objections, however, the affair raises a series of questions, starting with the most basic: why and how was Michel Mouillot, who is no innocent in the obscure world of Riviera politics, caught in such an elementary "sting" operation?

Three possible explanations are doing the rounds in Cannes. The first is the "innocent" version. According to this, the British casino managers genuinely believed that getting a fruit machine licence was simply a matter of applying to the town hall, were shocked to be asked for a "consideration" and went to the police because that is what you should do in a developed Western country with anti-corruption laws. A crooked mayor, for his part, with the confidence born of a career in the Mediterranean system of patronage, could not conceive of anyone going to the police on so "trivial" a matter - or perhaps being taken seriously by them.

Needless to say, this is not the favoured version. The other two explanations have their roots in the far-from-innocent politics of the French Riviera. The first is limited to local rivalries, and would have the Cannes police in cahoots with the mayor's enemies in the town and happy to have found a way of discrediting him, even one that called for the cooperation of the national police and Scotland Yard. The problem with this theory is that in Cannes, unlike some parts of the French Riviera, local politics currently has a strong national dimension. The third explanation for this summer's drama therefore suggests that Mouillot has paid the price for thwarting the intentions of party bosses in Paris.

As in many southern French cities, the battle lines in Cannes are drawn not between left and right, but between different parties of the right: the Gaullist party (RPR), the Union de la Democratie Francaise (UDF) - which form the national coalition government - and the extreme right National Front. Often, RPR/UDF pacts to distribute regional seats are made at party headquarters. In 1989, Michel Mouillot insisted on standing against the Paris-nominated Gaullist, who had the added emotive advantage of being an associate of the late president Georges Pompidou. In winning, Mouillot beat (and alienated) the Paris party machine.

Last year, two things happened to Mouillot. The first was that he was convicted of corruption in a much larger case centred on the city of Lyon, in which it was alleged that he sold permits for building work in Cannes. He is now engaged in his second and last appeal against those charges. The second was that, despite his recent conviction and pending appeal, he won an easy victory to be re-elected mayor of Cannes. Aside from his reasonable record as mayor, the main reason cited was strong local resistance to the candidate "parachuted in" from Paris by the Gaullists to try to wrest back control of Cannes.

That candidate, Pierre Lellouche - a defence and foreign policy adviser to President Chirac, on the right of the party and with very tenuous links with Cannes - had all the resources of the RPR at his disposal. But he still failed to win more than 25 per cent of the vote, despite campaigning as the "clean pair of hands" and having a good record as a constituency MP in a difficult region north of Paris.

The chief reason was that Gaullists on the city council refused to support him, and stood instead for Mouillot's list. The RPR in Paris permitted dark murmurings about dirty tricks, but the overwhelming sense, even a year later, is that local voters simply resented Paris trying to tell them what to do.

No one in Cannes suggests for a moment that the mayor is an innocent at large in a wicked world. But, they say, Riviera politics is a rough game with its own rules. They also ask, legitimately, who leaked the first reports of the Carlton Casino Club affair. "If we knew the answer," say his supporters, "we would know who is behind it."

The first, very detailed, report appeared in Le Monde the day after the "sting" at the Ritz - despite the legal requirement to keep details of investigations confidential. The same report said the French intelligence service had been involved in planning the operation and its progress had been "closely followed" by the interior minister, Jean-Louis Debre. Neither allegation has been denied. Mr Mouillot's lawyer wants to have Mr Debre called as a witness.

At the town hall last week, it seemed to be accepted that the mayor would not be returning, although he has refused to resign. "The mayor is in jail. It's a purely personal affair. My job is to keep the city running as smoothly as possible, so that people won't notice there is no mayor," said Maurice Delauney, a tough old Africa-hand in his seventies, who is the deputy mayor.

But he also ruled out the prospect of Mr Lellouche's election as mayor. "There's no prospect of elections. There is a procedure. If the mayor resigns, the existing council elects a new mayor. There's no need for elections, and anyone who tries to force elections will fail."

At the headquarters of Pierre Lellouche, in a chic side street not five minutes' walk from the Carlton hotel and one block from the seafront, three or four people were sitting around laughing and gossiping. They said they had been there since September and were fully expecting elections. "Come back tomorrow," said a woman who appeared to be in charge. "We'll tell you all about it - there's so much. What a scandal." But when I returned, as agreed, at 10 next morning, the office was locked and barred. A new notice of hours was pasted on the window, along with the newspaper clippings about the mayor's arrest, and there was no phone number.

Generally, people in Cannes found the aggressive calls from Lellouche for Mouillot's resignation and the activities of his headquarters a little distasteful. "It's as though they are trying to bury someone before they are even dead," said one critic.

There are signs that Paris may have understood this, and may be preparing to work with the anti-Lellouche Gaullists. Given the speed with which French justice works, they may even have to work again with Michel Mouillot - at least until the result of his final appeal against the Lyon conviction is known.

At the Carlton Casino Club, meanwhile, on the seventh floor of the hotel where everything seems gold-plated, the girl on the desk said she knew nothing about anything. When pressed, she said that was "company policy". Among the things she did not know were whether the fruit machines had yet been installed.

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