Strange case of the million dollar actress and an indecent proposal

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Arab princes, an American actress, call-girls, arms deals and secret agents... A routine investigation of de-luxe prostitution has brought French police and magistrates into dangerous diplomatic waters and uncovered a world straight from the pages of an airport novel.

The investigation, which began eight months ago, has revealed a call- girl network with tentacles around the globe and a clientele including Saudi princes, and other Gulf potentates, according to the newspaper Le Monde. Several witnesses have spoken of the brokering of a $1m sexual encounter in the South of France between an unidentified American actress and a member of a Gulf royal family.

The previous French government placed a brake on the investigation, apparently for fear of harming sales of military hardware to the Gulf. The new Socialist justice minister, Elisabeth Guigou, faces a tricky decision on whether to free the inquiry from its political shackles.

The first signs are that the investigation is already proceeding with renewed vigour. Earlier this week, the French vice squad arrested for questioning Paul Barril, a former gendarmerie captain, once on the security staff of the Elysee palace. Mr Barril, who now works for the former Emir of Qatar, is accused of involvement with the call-girl ring. The vice squad also visited the Hotel Crillon, on the Place de la Concorde, where the ex-Emir has been living for several months.

Mr Barril, who ran a kind of dirty-tricks squad at the Elysee under President Francois Mitterrand, has angrily denied all involvement with prostitution. He says he is the victim of lies spread by disgruntled, former employees of the ex-Emir.

The investigation began last October with the routine bugging and phone- tapping of a suspected, top-class prostitution ring, operating from the 16th arrondissement, one of the wealthiest quarters of Paris. The inquiry led to the arrest in January of a Swedish, former model, Annika Brumark, the apparent head of the organisation. Other arrests included a photographer, Jean-Pierre Bourgeois, who specialised in glamour shots for upmarket men's magazines and a Lebanese businessman called Nazihabdulatif Al Ladki.

Investigators seized diaries, records and address books with the names of young women, and their clients, from all over the world, from Britain to Indonesia by way of the United States. Mr Al Ladki also revealed the names of other alleged clients, including Saudi and other Gulf princes. According to Le Monde, he told investigators that the service had been used for years by big business, especially the arms industry, as a way of sweetening contracts with Arab states.

Several witnesses spoke of the arrangement of a meeting at a "palace" in the South of France between a Gulf prince and an American actress, who earned $1m, prompting comparisons with the film Indecent Proposal, in which a woman agrees to have sex with a super-rich businessman for that same amount. Rumours of such a meeting have circulated for years but they are now, according to Le Monde, being taken seriously by the judicial investigation.