The leading French industrialist and media owner Serge Dassault has been secretly recorded on video admitting that he paid out money to help win a local election where he was once mayor. The 88-year-old billionaire Dassault, who runs the defence, aviation, media and property empire the Dassault Group and who is also a UMP senator in the French Parliament, makes the admission in a video recording obtained by Mediapart and parts of which are published here (see below) in audio form.
The video recording was made clandestinely in November 2012 by two men from Corbeil-Essonnes who made an appointment to see Dassault in his office. During the secretly-filmed discussion, which lasts 24 minutes in all, the pair complain that a key figure in the “Dassault system” of alleged election payments had not distributed the 1.7 million euros as agreed. This money was apparently destined for people who, in the working class areas of Corbeil, ensured victory in the 2010 local election.
The existence of such a recording had already been mentioned by the satirical weekly magazine Le Canard Enchaîné in December 2012, while the newspaper Libération and the weekly news magazine Le Point have described how gangland culture and politics have become closely entwined in Corbeil. But in the recordings published by Mediapart today, Dassault himself confirms the existence of a system to buy votes.
Mediapart has seen the tape from end to end, has discovered the circumstances under which it was made and has been able to authenticate Serge Dassault's voice. Mediapart's sources have authorised the publication of three short extracts from the video tape; Mediapart itself has decided to publish just audio versions of these extracts.
In the first of these extracts Serge Dassault, who was mayor of Corbeil-Essonnes from 1995 to 2010, where is is nicknamed “Le Vieux” or “The Old One”, makes clear he is aware of the payments that the men mention. The two men are heard claiming what they are owed and the senator responds: “There, I can't give any more. I can no longer get anything out, it's banned...I'm being watched. I'm under surveillance by the police.”
In another extract, when the two men mention the fact that the money came via the Lebanon, the man who is claimed by Forbes to be the 69th wealthiest man on the planet, does not deny it, on the contrary, but points out: “The money has been given, completely. Me, I gave the money. I can no longer give a penny to anybody. I can no longer get out the money for anybody. There's no more Lebanon. There's no longer anyone over there, it's over. Me, I gave the money.”
In a third extract the billionaire denies being responsible for any errors in distributing his own money. “If it's been badly distributed, that's not my fault,” he says. “I'm not going to pay twice. Me, I've paid everything, so I'm not giving a penny more to anybody. If it's Younès [editor's note, the man who allegedly did not hand out the money as planned], sort it out with him. Me, I can't do anything.”
Contacted by Mediapart, Serge Dassault said that “considering the situation” he did not want to comment, and his lawyers did not respond to calls. As for Jean-Pierre Bechter, Dassault's successor as mayor and a director of one of his businesses, he said that he had already heard about talk about this video, had not seen it and didn't want to hear about it. “I don't give a damn about this hidden video. Like a good chiraquien [editor's note, supporter of former president Jacques Chirac] I will tell you that it has no impact on me.(1).”
Bechter, who said he has never spoken of the recording with Serge Dassault, tried to discredit the tape in advance by explaining that “Les Tarterêts [editor's note, the name of a housing estate in Corbeil] is Hollywood. There are lots of videos and set-ups doing the rounds.” When Mediapart explained to the mayor that it had authenticated the recording and is detailing its content, he replied: “What Serge Dassault says two or three years after...I have no explanation. He says what he wants. It's not me who's involved.”
Mediapart asked what explanation the mayor could give for Dassault's comments. “I don't know,” Bechter replied. “Perhaps he's taking the piss out of them. Me, I was elected without paying a euro. I have never heard talk of buying votes. There was a magistrate in each voting office. I was elected by 750 votes. How could you buy 800 votes? It would cost a fortune. And in any case, a month before the election, thanks to the opinion polls, people knew I was going to win. I don't see why he would have spent a euro. And, moreover, none of my political opponents has contested my election.”
1. Bechter used the expression “ça m’en touche une sans faire bouger l’autre”, a colourful expression popularised by former French president Jacques Chirac. It is apparently a reference to testicles, suggesting that touching one doesn’t have any effect on the other, hence “it has no impact on me”.
A gunman on the run
Nonetheless, the affair does raise questions. According to several ongoing police investigations it appears that on February 19th of this year, three months after the making of this clandestine recording, the two men who had visited Serge Dassault were shot at and wounded in Corbeil. According to sources close to the case the main suspect is Younès B., the same Younès mentioned by Dassault in the recording and who had been accused of not having distributed the money as agreed.
If the investigators seem certain of the identity of the gunman, it is because the person concerned did not hide himself while carrying out the attack, which took place in the middle of a street not far from a bar of which he is the owner. According to numerous witnesses the gunman left his face uncovered. Though he was very quickly identified, the gunman succeeded in fleeing France after the alleged attempted murder, and according to police sources is now living in Algeria.
The main victim of the shooting was a 32-year-old boxer, who was hit by three .38 calibre bullets and seriously wounded. A month earlier, in January of this year, another figure in the alleged “Dassault system”, known as Rachid T., and who had earlier denounced what he described as a “mafia” tendency in the town, was also the victim of attempted murder by a gunman.
The judicial authorities are trying to discover if there is a potential link, direct or indirect, between the attempted murder in February and the secret recording involving Dassault. There are two different and distinct forms of investigation. In Évry in the Essonne, the département – roughly equivalent to a county – in which Corbeil is situated, police officers from the serious crime squad the Brigade criminelle are looking into the attempted murder, under the authority of examining magistrates. Meanwhile in Paris a formal investigation was opened at the end of March 2013 into suspicions of “buying votes”, “corruption”, “laundering” and “misuse of company assets” during local council elections in Corbeil from 2008 to 2010. This investigation is being carried out by officers from the national fraud office, the Division nationale des investigations financières et fiscales (Dniff), based at Nanterre, west of Paris.
In July this year Jean-Pierre Bechter was detained for questioning in connection with the inquiries into the attempted shooting, as was the town council's director of youth services and sport. The two men were later released and were not required to appear before the examining magistrates. Bechter told Mediapart that he did know Younès B. but not the two victims of the February shooting. “Everything was sorted out during my questioning,” he said.
The examining magistrates at Évry also wanted Serge Dassault to be questioned. But on July 3rd this year the Senate office refused to lift his parliamentary immunity, on the grounds that “the demand lacked a statement of reasons”. This decision meant Serge Dassault did not have to appear before the judicial authorities. However, the secret recordings revealed by Mediapart could change the situation. They appear, at any rate, to be a key exhibit in the financial side of the affair, which involves alleged electoral corruption in Corbeil.
In 2009 the Conseil d'État, or Council of State, France's top administrative court, annulled the previous year’s local election in which Serge Dassault was narrowly elected mayor of Corbeil. He was also ruled ineligible for the office for a year. In its ruling the Council said that, while the scale of the donations of money that Serge Dassault was accused of making could not be precisely determined, “in view of the winning margin of 170 votes these facts were of a nature as to alter the genuineness of the vote and to invalidate the results”.
It was because Dassault was not able to stand in the fresh elections of 2010 that he backed one of his allies, Jean-Pierre Bechter, a former MP for the RPR party – the predecessor to the right-wing UMP – in the Corrèze in central western France, who is a director of Dassault's press group Socpresse.
The recordings published by Mediapart would appear to suggest that the alleged practice of buying votes in Corbeil, something which has been claimed by numerous inhabitants of the town, continued after Dassault was prevented from being mayor. It appears, too, that it continued with his own money, and it is now the task of the police to retrace the trail of the money involved.
In fact, a third judicial investigation, this one carried out by the Brigade de répression de la délinquance sur la personne (BRDP) – the police squad tackling crimes against the person – may help shed light on the money trail. The BRDP were called in after one of Dassault's sons, Laurent Dassault, started receiving threatening phone calls. Initial investigations have already led officers to focus their attention on three brothers who are originally from Corbeil.
According to witness statements one of the brothers, Mamadou K., who currently lives in Belgium, received money in the past from the Lebanon, via a bank account linked to Serge Dassault, in relation to the billionaire's political activities. If true, this appears to tally with the payments set-up as described by Serge Dassault in the tapes that Mediapart publish today.
English version by Michael Streeter