56 accused in trial of French paedophile ring

THE DEFENDANTS form a cross-section of provincial, conservative France: a former army officer and Gaullist party official; two doctors; a teacher; a gendarme; a builder; a photographer; and an obscure film director.

They are among 56 men on trial in Creteil in the Paris suburbs, accused of belonging to a network of paedophiles which was dismantled in a series of coordinated raids across the country two years ago. Another defendant, a retired priest, died before the case came to trial.

The principal defendant, Jean-Marie Simonnet, 52, is a former parachute regiment officer who was once a local official of the neo-Gaullist RPR party in south-west France. He denied in court that he was a paedophile (he explained that he was a "sado-masochist") but he admitted that financial problems had driven him to sell video tapes showing sex scenes with children and animals.

"The thought of what I did, just for money, makes me sick," he told the court. Mr Simonnet said that he had copied the tapes. He denied having staged the sex scenes himself or - as one defendant claimed - having offered his clients sex with children. Police monitored his business - which operated under the code name "Laure" - after he offered paedophile tapes on the Minitel network (the limited French precursor of the Internet run by France Telecom).

A member of the public complained to the police and he was asked to go ahead and place an order for a video. Investigators were astonished to find that the pounds 50 tape - showing a naked eight-year-old girl - had been sent from the local RPR headquarters in Tarbes, near Lourdes. A raid on Mr Simonnet's home revealed recording equipment and nearly 67 hours of tape, of which more than 57 hours showed sex scenes involving children under 10. Other tapes involved sex with animals. The names of the other 55 defendants were taken from Mr Simonnet's files and they were arrested in raids across France in May 1997.

Another defendant, Jean-Christophe de Menthon, 27, a fashion photographer, admitted buying nine tapes from Mr Simonnet. He told the court he was "scared of adult women" and attracted to young girls. "No real man would buy this stuff," he said. "It's horrible, disgusting, but it could have been worse. I could have bought videos showing massacres."

Mr Simonnet told the court that he had run into financial troubles after leaving the army. He started a business, repairing torn parachutes, whichfailed. At the beginning of 1995, he was tempted to launch a business copying paedophile videos and selling them through the Minitel. He said he had sold between five and 10 tapes a month, earning around pounds 6,000 a year.

The presiding judge, Alain Laporte, asked whether he had ever considered whether "this kind of business, could encourage attacks on children?" Mr Simonnet said that he had "analysed the situation" for the first time during the 17 months that he had spent in prison awaiting his trial.

The trial continues.

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