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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
TV
Life and Style
Apple showed no sign of losing its talent for product launches with the new, slightly larger iPhone 6 making headlines
techSecurity breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Oliver
filmTV chef Jamie Oliver turned down role in The Hobbit
News
The official police photograph of Dustin Diamond taken after he was arrested in Wisconsin
peopleDownfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
tvReview: Top Gear team flee Patagonia as Christmas special reaches its climax in the style of Butch and Sundance
News
people
Sport
Ashley Barnes of Burnley scores their second goal
footballMan City vs Burnley match report
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Mayhew as Chewbacca alongside Harrison Ford's Han Solo in 'Star Wars'
film
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Man of action: Christian Bale stars in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film
Arts and Entertainment
Tracy Emin's 1998 piece 'My Bed' on display at Christie's
artOne expert claims she did not
News
Ernesto Che Guevara and Fidel Castro, right, met at Havana Golf Club in 1962 to mock the game
newsFidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
News
Hackers revealed Oscar-winning actress Lawrence was paid less than her male co-stars in American Hustle
people
Arts and Entertainment
Clueless? Locked-door mysteries are the ultimate manifestation of the cerebral detective story
booksAs a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
Sport
Robin van Persie is blocked by Hugo Lloris
footballTottenham vs Manchester United match report
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Business Manager

£32000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Business Manager is required ...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

£45000 - £55000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Panel & Cabinet Wireman

£20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Panel Wireman required for small electro...

Recruitment Genius: Electronics Test Engineer

£25000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An SME based in East Cheshire, ...

Day In a Page

A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

Who remembers that this week we enter the 150th anniversary year of the end of the American Civil War, asks Robert Fisk
Homeless Veterans appeal: Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served

Homeless Veterans appeal

Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served
Downfall of Dustin 'Screech' Diamond, the 'Saved By The Bell' star charged with bar stabbing

Scarred by the bell

The downfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

Security breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
Cuba's golf revolution: But will the revolutionary nation take 'bourgeois' game to its heart?

Will revolutionary Cuba take 'bourgeois' golf to its heart?

Fidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
The Locked Room Mysteries: As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor Otto Penzler explains the rules of engagement

The Locked Room Mysteries

As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
Amy Adams on playing painter Margaret Keane in Tim Burton's Big Eyes

How I made myself Keane

Amy Adams hadn’t wanted to take the role of artist Margaret Keane, because she’d had enough of playing victims. But then she had a daughter, and saw the painter in a new light
Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

Parting view of Ofcom chief... we hate jokes on the disabled

Bad language once got TV viewers irate, inciting calls to broadcasting switchboards. But now there is a worse offender, says retiring head of the media watchdog, Ed Richards
A look back at fashion in 2014: Wear in review

Wear in review

A look back at fashion in 2014
Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015. Might just one of them happen?

Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015

Might just one of them happen?
War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

The West needs more than a White Knight

Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

The stories that defined 2014

From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?