France must wait for Noir verdict

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The Independent Online
Some described it as the symbolic end of the Eighties; others as the vengeance of the Nineties, yet others as "Dallas la Lyonnaise". The chief defendant called it a political set-up designed to end his career; the prosecutor said it reflected the whole sorry moral state of France.

The three-week fraud trial of Michel Noir and Pierre Botton that ended in Lyons yesterday had everything: fame, money, power - and a sordid family feud. The court will give its verdict on 20 April - shortly before the presidential elections. It could remove Mr Noir from the Lyons mayoralty before municipal elections next June and from his parliamentary seat in the National Assembly.

The case made the tall, craggy and telegenic Mr Noir - a minister in the last Chirac government - the first incumbent mayor to go on trial in his own city. Pierre Botton, on the mousy side and bankrupt, was a fast-living businessman and Mr Noir's son-in-law.

The other defendants included a leading television presenter rejoicing in the apparently aristocratic, but actually manufactured, name Patrick Poivre d'Arvor (otherwise known as PPDA); the mayor of Cannes, the chairman of a football club, and Charles Giscard d`Estaing, nephew of the former French president.

On the margin was Mr Noir's daughter, Anne-Valerie, wife of Pierre Botton, whose pleas to both men in her diary were made public during the trial, to her evident anger and distress.

What united these disparate people was Mr Noir's 1988-89 campaign to become mayor of France's second city, and a taste for the high life and company of stars. Mr Botton masterminded the campaign, using money siphoned from a pharmaceutical company he had bought; when the company ran into difficulties and Mr Noir was elected, Mr Botton tried to call in some favours, with disastrous results.

He went bankrupt, and the police inquiry turned up evidence that Mr Noir, along with "PPDA" and others had received scores of favours from Mr Botton, including expensive foreign trips, rental of a luxury villa in St Tropez and tickets for the Cannes film festival.

Mr Noir then told the police that what Mr Botton had requested in return for his efforts during the campaign was a 2 per cent commission on all contracts awarded in the city. He said the request was backed up by a threat to abandon his wife and their children. Anne-Valerie Botton's diaries were produced in court to suggest that she feared such an outcome.

But her diaries also revealed her antipathy towards her father: "You have never been a father, you are a politician," she wrote, and she warned her husband that Mr Noir was a "rotter who uses people, then drops them".

Mr Botton was charged with false accounting and fraud. Mr Noir, PPDA and the others were charged with receiving stolen goods and abuse of power. All pleaded not guilty.

Mr Noir and PPDA hired top lawyers from Paris, whose style and oratory shone even in the ornate splendour of the 19th-century courtroom. They pleaded on PPDA's behalf that he had accepted the gifts "out of curiosity", and that they had no influence on him. Anyway, they said, everyone did it - to which the prosecutor replied: "Everyone else may have done it occasionally; PPDA made a habit of it." Mr Noir claimed he was Mr Botton's innocent victim; and the real reason for the trial was to end his glittering career.

The prosecutor, in his ferocious seven-hour summing up,called for exemplary sentences: four years' imprisonment for Mr Botton; 18 months (suspended) for Mr Noir and PPDA, fines of 200,000 francs (£24,000) and five years' deprivation of rights - i.e. the right to vote and stand for public office.

But the defendants, and the millions who have been following each twist of the case, must wait until three days before the first round of the presidential election for judgment.

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