Monday, February 14, 2005

The world's most wanted man: no more!

Alfred Sirven, the disgraced General Affairs Director of Elf-Aquitaine who became the world's most wanted fugitive in the late 1990s after the exposure of the complex of scandals around President Mitterand, has died at his home in Deauville. This man's remarkable career took him from fighting in Korea with the Foreign Legion to a meteoric rise through the French petrochemical industry (passing via the robbery of a bank in Japan whilst he was on leave) and a position of immense political power, to notoriety and exile.

The state-owned oil corporation, Elf, had been created in the 1960s at the behest of Charles de Gaulle to guarantee French access to African oil supplies. With the retreat of the French empire, it developed a further role as an arm of state policy, shoring up French influence in Africa. In a sense, it is hard to say whether France's oil company pursued French interests in order to retain exclusive control of oilfields, or whether control of oilfields was used to further other French interests; perhaps it doesn't matter. In the 1980s and 90s, Elf became the key to a whole undeclared foreign policy pursued by Mitterand and his closest advisers on the Elysee staff. At one end, Elf money paid out by the company's agents provided huge kickbacks to Taiwanese politicians in order that they might buy warships from French shipyards. At another, immense sums were channelled to Angolan politicians to secure exclusive French control of contracts to develop Angola's oil. Not just cash, but masses of arms procured with Elf funding by the fugitive arms dealer and Republican donor Pierre Falcone were sent to help the Angolan government defeat UNITA. In the end, the Angolan state oil company Sonangol chose to go with Elf. It is very likely that Viktor Bout, who was operating in Angola at the time and buying arms from the same Slovak arsenals, was on the payroll.

The corruption was not confined to distant Taiwan and Angola, though. When Elf bought the Leuna oil refinery in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, the local Christian Democrats were induced to agree with yet more cash. Some of that money, as well as direct contributions from Elf, ended up in the Federal CDU's coffers - a very good reason for the excellent ties between Mitterand and Helmut Kohl that was only exposed years later in the "Spendenaffäre" scandal that finished Kohl's career. Another object of the graft was none other than France's Foreign Minister, Roland Dumas, who was plied with gifts, cash and the attentions of Christine Deviers-Joncour, the self-appointed "Whore of the Republic" whose memoirs finally burst the scandal.

It was a hell of a story.

Sirven's role had been crucial; he had signed off the money, helped to decide the targets and dispatched Andre Tarallo, Elf's director of corporate affairs, with actual bags of real raw cash to dish out the payoffs. When the story broke, he vanished with uncommon success. For several years, his location was a mystery. Later, journalists tracked him down to the Philippines, but the Filipino authorities were strangely unable to find him. The reason was no doubt financial. After President Estrada was deposed in a revolution, though, the Filipino police suddenly realised where he lived. A hundred cops converged on his beach house, but he still managed to eat the SIM card of his mobile phone to prevent the relevation of his contacts in Manila. It was back to France, and the courts.

In court, Sirven ratted on everyone else involved, boasting that what he knew could bring down the republic five times over. (The republic, however, survived.) He got a light sentence as a result - most of the jail time went to Elf's CEO, Loik Le Floch-Prigent. Remarkably little of his republic-toppling knowledge ever got out, and now it would appear it never will, absent a surprise memoir or will.

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