New French business corruption scandal

THE LIST of top French businessmen accused of corruption lengthened this week as Jean- Louis Beffa, chief executive of Saint Gobain, principally known for glass-making, was indicted for payment of an illegal commission with probable political fall-out.

Mr Beffa was charged with 'traffic of influence' by Renaud Van Ruymbeke, one of France's best known examining magistrates and a specialist in corruption involving political parties. Mr Van Ruymbeke turned up at Saint Gobain's headquarters at La Defense, the modern business complex west of Paris, on Tuesday; five hours later, Mr Beffa was charged.

He was the latest of about 100 senior French businessmen charged with one or other irregularity. In July, Pierre Suard, the head of the Alcatel telecommunications company, was charged with fraud and embezzlement. Six weeks earlier, Didier Pineau-Valencienne, the chairman of Schneider, was detained in Brussels' Forest jail and charged with embezzlement.

Mr Beffa's troubles concerned a commission paid to obtain a public works contract in the city of Nantes. Specifically, Mr Van Ruymbeke was looking into a payment by Pont-a-Mousson, a Saint Gobain subsidiary, of 4.4m francs (pounds 500,000) to Rene Trager, a businessman in the Breton city of Rennes. Le Monde said this commission was believed to have been paid to the Republican Party, the main component of the centre- right Union for French Democracy (UDF). Mr Trager, in earlier investigations, gave evidence against Georgina Dufoix, a former Socialist social affairs minister.

Mr Van Ruymbeke, an examining magistrate from Rennes, first became famous for a series of investigations into illicit funding of the Socialist Party. The Socialists were defeated in parliamentary elections last year. Mr Van Ruymbeke's investigations concentrated on inflated bills paid to Socialist-run municipalities with the excess used to pay election campaign expenses. This earned Mr Ruymbeke an anti-Socialist reputation but for some months now his enquiries have led to suggestions that the Rebublican Party also received illicit funds.

Recent investigations by Mr Van Ruymbeke have already embarrassed Gerard Longuet, the UDF Industry Ministry who is also the Republican Party's president. According to French press reports, Mr Trager has told Mr Ruymbeke that the commission paid by the Saint Gobain subsidiary went to the Republican Party. It was not until early 1991 that the National Assembly passed a law laying down strict rules governing campaign expenses.

As Mr Beffa's juridical misfortunes surfaced, Le Monde published the results of a survey of 622 French business leaders in which 54 per cent acknowledged that they were aware that many companies broke the law. Fifty-six per cent said they would favour a 'clean hands' operation, such as that carried out in Italy, to cleanse the business world of illegal practices.

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