France’s tortuous and murky relations with Africa generated two scandals on the same day yesterday, one political and the other diplomatic.
A lawyer who worked as an African emissary for Jacques Chirac claimed that that he had handed tens of millions of dollars in secret cash payments from African leaders to the ex- president and to the former Prime Minister, Dominique de Villepin in the period 1995-2005.
At the same time, the French diplomatic and military establishment was deeply split by President Nicolas Sarkozy’s decision to welcome the much-criticised Rwandan president, Paul Kagame, on a three day state visit starting yesterday. Close aides to Mr Kagame are still under criminal investigation in France for their alleged part in the assassination which led to the Rwandan genocide in 1994.
Mr Kagame’s government has accused the French army in the past of playing a part in the genocide. The French foreign minister, Alan Juppe, who held the same post in 1994, has decided to boycott the Rwandan president’s visit.
Even bigger political waves were generated yesterday by a confessional interview by Robert Bourgi, 66, a Parisian lawyer who once served as an African emissary for Jacques Chirac and now occupies a similar role for President Nicolas Sarkozy. He told the Journal du Dimanche that he had personally handed over briefcases full of cash – up to the equivalent of £ 1.5m at a time – to President Chirac, before and during his presidency.
He claimed that the cash, apparently to fund political campaigns, came from five leaders of former French colonies in Africa: Abdoulaye Wade of Senegal; Blaise Compaore of Burkina Faso; Laurent Gbagbo of Ivory Coast; Denis Sassou Nguesso of Congo; and Omar Bongo of Gabon.
A total of lars 10m was alleged to have been handed over for Mr Chirac’s 2002 presidential campaign alone, Mr Bourgi said. On one occasion, he claimed, the money was hidden in a large African ceremonial drum.
Mr Chirac’s long time chief of staff, and later prime minister, Dominique de Villepin – who was accused of handling the illicit African cash on dozens of occasions – yesterday rejected Mr Bourgi’s allegations as “fiddle-faddle and smoke-screens”.
He pointed out that Mr Bourgo had chosen to make the claims a few days before a French appeal court is due to make its judgment on the Clearsteam “fake corruption” scandal. Mr Villepin, who was cleared in a first trial in 2009, is accused of trying to destroy his centre-right colleague, Nicolas Sarkozy, in 2004 by spreading false allegations that he had illegal bank-accounts in Luxembourg.
Mr Villepin – who may run in the presidential election next spring if he is cleared – suggested that the Elysee Palace had inspired the Bourgi interview to try to discredit him.
The timing of Mr Bourgi’s confessions is intriguing for other reasons. President Chirac has been on trial since Monday – but excused attendance for health reasons – on charges of illegally diverting cash from the Paris town hall to his political party.
At the same time, a book will be published next week by an investigative journalist, Pierre Pean which suggests, amongst other things, that illegal payments by African leaders were also made to Mr Sarkozy through Mr Bourgi in 2006-7. In his interview yesterday, the lawyer insisted that all such payments had halted in 2005 and had not been revived by Mr Sarkozy.
The front-running candidate for the Socialist nomination for next spring’s election, Francois Hollande, yesterday called on the justice minister to open a criminal investigation to establish the truth of the allegations and counter-allegations. “It appears that serious offences against campaign financing law – any maybe far worse than that – may have been going on for years,” Mr Hollande said.
Questions were also being asked yesterday about Mr Sarkosy’s decision to invite the Rwandan president on a state visit. Other western countries, including Britain and the United States, have distanced themselves from Mr Kagame recently following allegations of widespread human rights violations. Former senior French army officers said that it was a “scandal” that Mr Kagame had been invited despite his “unfounded” genocide allegations against French soldiers.