French minister in fraud scandal

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PARIS - France's top anti-corruption magistrate recommended that Gerard Longuet, the Industry Minister, be charged with fraud after alleging that two companies paid towards his Saint Tropez villa, Julian Nundy writes.

Renaud Van Ruymbeke, a Rennes investigating magistrate recommended to the city's prosecutor on Monday that Mr Longuet, 48, should be charged with receiving embezzled funds.

Mr Longuet is president of the Republican Party, the largest component of the conservative Union for French Democracy (UDF). The UDF is the coalition partner of the Gaullist RPR. Mr Van Ruymbeke suggested that the minister be investigated for his possible role in awarding public contracts to the companies which allegedly helped pay for the villa. The magistrate alleged that the General Water Company and Cogedim, a building promoter, had paid for much of the construction work on Mr Longuet's villa and that the bill undervalued the real cost, put at Fr4.2m ( pounds 506,000), by nearly Fr2m. 'If the building of the villa was undervalued in the bill, the sum that was paid, that is Fr2.5m, was of doubtful origin,' Mr Van Ruymbeke wrote.

SFR, a subsidiary of the water company was granted a contract for a mobile telephone network while Mr Longuet, also telecommunications minister, held the post between 1986 and 1988.

If Mr Longuet is charged, he will come under pressure to resign as minister. Alain Carignon, the Gaullist Communication Minister, left office in July after being charged with corruption. Francois Leotard, the Defence Minister and a close ally of Mr Longuet, has said any minister facing charges should step down. Yesterday, however, Mr Longuet said he would stay. 'I don't give a damn,' he said, adding that he had paid 'the market price and even more than the market price' for the villa.

Mr Longuet's lawyer said the minister could defend himself, adding that the publication of the magistrate's report was highly irregular. Edouard Balladur, the Gaullist Prime Minister, appealed for Mr Longuet's 'dignity' to be respected. Mr Longuet has been tipped as a future prime minister if Mr Balladur succeeds Francois Mitterrand as president.

Laurent Fabius, a Socialist former Prime Minister, and two ministers, were told yesterday they must appear before the Court of the Republic in connection with the contaminated blood scandal.

This could be a prelude to charging Mr Fabius, Georgina Dufoix, who was Social Affairs Minister, and Edmond Herve, the junior health minister. The ministers, who must appear in court next week, were in office when French haemophiliacs received blood products contaminated with the HIV virus in 1985.