Party stands by Juppe over `kickback'

The eternal triangle of political power, patronage and corruption has broken to the surface forcefully in France this week, with judicial criticism of the Prime Minister implying maladministration, the indictment of the chairman of a major company, and the start of one of the biggest corruption trials in recent years - that of a former communications minister, Alain Carignon.

The Prime Minister, Alain Juppe, yesterday received a chorus of support from members of the government and ruling Gaullist party, following Monday's judicial recommendation that he could face a corruption investigation. The party line was that the central anti-corruption service had exceeded its brief in pronouncing on the theoretical case of "an elected councillor who reduces the rent on his son's council-owned flat" and was politically biased because it had been appointed by a Socialist government.

MPs from the UDF, the Gaullists' allies in government, who were waiting for Mr Juppe to address their annual convention in Biarritz, were equally supportive.

Mr Juppe chose to add nothing to his remarks on Monday night when he had described the magistrates as a "petty political cabal". Wisely or not Mr Juppe had chosen as one of the themes of his Biarritz speech the need to combat benefit fraud.

Across the country, the former communications minister in Edouard Balladur's government, Alain Carignon, was embarking on his second day of testimony in a trial keenly awaited throughout France because of the size of the alleged corruption and the prominence of the main defendant.

Mr Carignon, along with seven others, is charged with corruption, abuse of public office and suborning witnesses while mayor of Grenoble in the late Eighties. The case relates to the award of the contract for supplying the city's water, for which Mr Carignon allegedly received a sizeable kickback. He is said to have invested most of this money in an ailing local press group in return for favourable coverage of his and the Gaullist party's activities, and regular contributions to party funds.

Mr Carignon, who quickly rose to become one of France's youngest ministers, is also accused of receiving benefits in kind - including a 20 million franc Paris flat - from the water company concerned, Lyonnaise des Eaux.

The main lines of his defence are that he made no personal gain, that the siphoning of money from the award of contracts to fund political activities was not illegal until 1993, and that he was unfairly made a scapegoat during Mr Balladur's anti-corruption 1993 campaign.

As Mr Carignon's trial was beginning, the chief executive of the giant Promodes concern which owns supermarket and hypermarket chains, Paul- Louis Halley, was released on bail in Pau in the south-west. Mr Halley was under formal investigation from yesterday for "traffic of influence, abuse of public funds and false accounting", relating in part to the payment of special considerations for the siting of hypermarkets.