The Scooter, the Squid and a political murder

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The Independent Online
A new book suggests that one of the most senior centre-right French politicians, Francois Leotard, organised the murder of a parliamentary colleague three years ago. An incandescent Mr Leotard says that he is the victim of a plot by elements in a rival but allied right-wing party: President Chirac's RPR.

John Lichfield unravels an explosive tale of murder, political corruption, mafia money-laundering, secret services, dirty tricks and journalistic ethics.

Yann Piat was murdered. That much is clear. She was shot in her Renault Clio close to her home near Toulon in February 1994. At the time she was a UDF (centre-right) deputy for the Var, the departement which stretches along the Mediterranean coast from the eastern suburbs of Marseilles almost as far as Cannes. The Var is, by common consent, the most ethically challenged departement in France.

Ms Piat, who had previously been a deputy for the far-right National Front, was investigating links between criminals and politicians. According to the official version of events, she was murdered by two local hoodlums. According to an incendiary book just published by two French journalists, she was murdered by secret service agents on the orders of two of the most senior members of her own party: the then defence minister and head of the UDF, Francois Leotard, and the mayor of Marseilles, and head of the regional assembly, Jean-Claude Gaudin.

The book - The Yann Piat Affair: Assassins at the Heart of Government" - mentions neither man by name. It describes them as two nationally known politicians, who had the defence ministry code names of L'Encornet (the squid) and Trottinette (scooter). From hints and circumstantial evidence, it is clear to everyone who reads the book who the accused really are. But not, it seems, to the authors. They insist, rather disingenuously, that they have no idea of the identity of the two politicians whom they accuse of murder.

The other evidence in the book is also a little thin. Much of the information is sourced to an unnamed "general" in the military security agency. A senior military officer suspected of having been this source was being interviewed by defence ministry investigators yesterday as part of an inquiry ordered by the Socialist defence minister, Alain Richard. According to one report, the deep throat (or gorge profonde) is not a general but a naval captain, who was thrown out of the military security agency for embezzlement. Even Liberation, a centre-left newspaper which might have been expected to enjoy the book, dismissed the work yesterday as a "far- fetched hypothesis ... unsupported by any kind of beginnings of proof."

The authors - Andre Rougeot of the investigative newspaper Le Canard Enchaine and Jean-Michel Verne, great-great-grandson of the writer Jules Verne - say that they are merely raising questions which deserve to be investigated more thoroughly. They say that Ms Piat had assembled evidence, including photographs, linking the two unnamed politicians with the Italian mafia. They believe that the pair were preparing to sell off disused military sites on the Mediterranean coast to the mafia as part of a money-laundering exercise.

The "squid" counter-attacked spectacularly this week. Mr Leotard, who is also mayor of Frejus in the Var, said he was the latest victim of "secret political cells", which had been operating in France for 20 or 30 years, trying to "dishonour and dirty" French democracy.

Although Mr Leotard did not spell it out, every commentator in France took this as an attack on elements in the neo-Gaullist party, the RPR, founded by President Jacques Chirac. In particular, it was seen as an attack on an old foe of Mr Leotard, a former secret service agent called Jean-Charles Marchiani, who was installed as prefect (chief national government officer) in the Var by Chirac in 1995. Mr Marchiani, who has friendly relations with the far-right National Front, is suspected, without obvious proof, of being another leading source for the Piat book.

Why should the RPR want to destroy, Mr Leotard and Mr Gaudin, their nominal allies? In the regional elections next March there will be a vicious struggle for the presidency of the Provence-Cote d'Azur region. Jean-Marie Le Pen himself will run for the National Front. Mr Leotard has announced his intention of running for the UDF. The RPR thinks it has the better chance of beating Mr Le Pen. It would certainly have a much better chance if Mr Leotard was disabled. However, the vicious recriminations over the Piat affair will now, inevitably, bring most aid and comfort to the NF.