A tale of two stars, a missing tycoon - and the taxman

Leading lights of French cinema investigated amid claims they were paid to pose as friends of a fugitive Algerian multimillionaire
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The Independent Online

The king and queen of French cinema, Gérard Depardieu and Catherine Deneuve, face investigation for their alleged "friendship for cash" with an Algerian multimillionaire whose mysterious financial empire collapsed overnight last year.

The king and queen of French cinema, Gérard Depardieu and Catherine Deneuve, face investigation for their alleged "friendship for cash" with an Algerian multimillionaire whose mysterious financial empire collapsed overnight last year.

A French investigating magistrate has been told that the two stars accepted €45,000 (£30,000) each in cash payments to appear at glittering parties given by Rafik Abdelmoumene "Moumen" Khalifa, 38 - now sought by Interpol for fraud and money-laundering - when he was trying to extend his empire to France in 2002.

One party, in Mr Khalifa's home - a villa overlooking Cannes, valued at €36m - in September 2002, attracted a host of celebrities, including Claudia Schiffer, Naomi Campbell, Bono, Béatrice Dalle and the former French culture minister Jack Lang. French investigators have no evidence that the other guests were paid to be there, but the host sent aircraft to bring them to the south of France.

Taking money to appear at parties is not illegal, though Depardieu and Deneuve are alleged to have omitted to declare the payments in their tax returns, according to a leak from the judicial investigation to the magazine L'Express. They face questioning by the magistrate, Isabelle Prévost-Desprez. She is looking into the Khalifa empire, which collapsed between February and April 2003, leaving an estimated €1bn black hole in Algeria and France.

Depardieu, 55, once described the apparently self-made multimillionaire as the "saviour of modern Algeria". He angrily denies that he was paid to pose as Khalifa's friend. In a book of biographical interviews published last week, he says: "I never took a franc ... I know that Moumen handed out lots of cash in all directions but, as for me, I never took a thing."

Deneuve, 61 next month, has refused to comment on the allegations. She was a frequent dinner and party guest of the young Algerian tycoon in 2002, when he was preparing to launch from Cannes a French-language TV station for the Arab world (Khalifa TV). She even turned up at a football match, sponsored by Mr Khalifa, between Algeria and a France XI in Algiers, though she is known to detest football.

The Khalifa empire, including a bank, an airline, a TV station and a car-hire company, sprang up within seven years and folded after executives were arrested at Algiers airport carrying suitcases containing €2m in cash. Mr Khalifa fled to London, but his present whereabouts are unknown.

The French government believes that the business was almost certainly an elaborate front for powerful figures within the Algerian civil government or military, or both.

Mr Khalifa is the son of a former Algerian security officer. He turned the family business, consisting of two chemists' shops, into a sprawling empire with ambitions, among other things, to build a brand new capital city for Algeria in the desert.

A series of articles in the French press in 2002 - largely based on information provided by the intelligence services - suggested that the whole operation was a front for unknown figures within the shadowy and clan-ridden Algerian power structure. They suggested that the motive was partly to smuggle money out of the country but also to try to create an image of Algeria as a modern, thrusting country, with successful business heroes.

However, much of the missing cash belonged to ordinary Algerians who invested in the Khalifa Bank, which offered very high rates of interest.

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