French uproar over Tapie's rude awakening

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The Independent Online
FRENCH authorities arrested the maverick left-wing politician Bernard Tapie when they discovered he was planning a publicity-generating trip to Rwanda, it emerged yesterday.

Eva Joly, the examining magistrate who ordered Mr Tapie's arrest, said that her decision was based on telephone taps - authorised by the Interior Ministry - which showed that Mr Tapie intended to leave France until his recently acquired immunity as a Euro-MP became effective on 19 July.

Mr Tapie was preparing a trip to Rwanda, where he was guaranteed a high level of media attention, given France's controversial humanitarian intervention in the civil war.

Jean-Francois Hory, president of the Left Radicals' Movement (MRG) - to which Mr Tapie belongs - complained about the phone taps, and said the Rwanda trip had been planned with no ulterior motives.

Mr Tapie, 51, was woken by police just after 6am on Wednesday, less than 12 hours after his fellow members of the National Assembly voted to lift his parliamentary immunity, opening the way for prosecution for tax fraud involving his sleek four-masted yacht, Le Phocea.

The detention of Mr Tapie - or rather the dramatic manner in which the French police behaved - has provoked an uproar in France.

The spectacle of a popular politician being dragged from his home in the early hours has, for many, supported Mr Tapie's contention that he is the victim of a concerted campaign by an establishment which fears that his populist style is undercutting the political class educated in the elite Grandes Ecoles.

But the legal cases pending against Mr Tapie, a minister in the Socialist government which lost power last year, remain serious. The Phocea affair revolves around its registration as a merchant vessel, giving considerable tax concessions, while the Finance Ministry maintains that it is used purely for pleasure.

Other legal problems facing Mr Tapie include the management of the Olympique de Marseille (OM) soccer club, of which he is chairman.

He has been charged with corruption for the bribery of players of the Valenciennes side before a league match on 19 May 1993. This affair, just before the European Cup final against the Milan side of Silvio Berlusconi - coincidentally, Mr Tapie is often likened to the new Italian Prime Minister - cost OM its European title and earned it relegation to the Second Division.

An earlier OM affair concerns under-the-table payments to players via foreign bank accounts and other suspect money movements. Mr Tapie was charged with embezzlement and forgery for this in February.

In December, Mr Tapie was also charged with misuse of funds at the Testut kitchen and bathroom scales company.

Mr Tapie's political fortunes rise nevertheless and this is in part ascribed to support from the highest possible level - President Francois Mitterrand himself. Mr Mitterrand gave his staff a thorough dressing-down in April because of published speculation that he was promoting Mr Tapie to scupper Michel Rocard, the Socialist Party leader, in the European elections.

If that was the strategy, it worked. Mr Rocard was forced out of the party leadership on 19 June a week after his list took a disastrous 14.5 per cent in the European elections. The election list which Mr Tapie headed for the MRG, normally a junior partner of the Socialists, was just two points behind.

It was alleged that Mr Tapie's smooth speech in his own defence in parliament this week was fine-tuned by one of Mr Mitterrand's senior advisers. Mr Mitterrand is on record as saying that Mr Tapie was an asset because of his hargne de gauche - 'left- wing surliness'. Few would argue with the noun.