Inside story: the Constitutional Council, Balladur and the row over his election funds

By and

In May, 2002, eleven French naval engineers died in a bomb attack in the Pakistani port of Karachi, where they had been helping to build three submarines sold by France to Pakistan in 1994. The ongoing Paris-based judicial investigation into the murders is working on the theory that they were murdered in revenge for the non-payment by France to intermediaries of huge cash kickbacks. It has found evidence suggesting the kickbacks may have also involved illegal political funding in France. Central to this allegation are the presidential election campaign expenses of former prime minister Edouard Balladur, for whom Nicolas Sarkozy was campaign spokesman and which are due to be the subject of a second judicial investigation. Both deny any wrongdoing. However, Mediapart reveals how France's top administrative court smothered evidence suggesting the contrary.

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The murder of 11 French engineers in a bomb blast in the Pakistani port of Karachi in 2002 is the object of an ongoing judicial investigation in France with ramifications that threaten to engulf president Nicolas Sarkozy.

This complex affair begins with the 1994 sale by France to Pakistan of three Agosta attack submarines, which the murdered engineers were building in Karachi when the minibus carrying them to work was bombed on May 8th, 2002. The French investigation into their deaths is now working on the theory that the attack was carried out in revenge for the non-payment by France of kickbacks promised to local intermediaries to secure the submarine sale.

Investigations into the kickbacks have found evidence suggesting some of the significant sums of money set aside for the bribes were also destined, via complicated routes, to return to France to illegally fund the 1995 presidential election campaign of former prime minister Edouard Balladur. His campaign spokesman was Nicolas Sarkozy, who also served under Balladur as budget minister.

Don't read my lips: Nicolas Sarkozy and Edouard Balladur. © Reuters Don't read my lips: Nicolas Sarkozy and Edouard Balladur. © Reuters

 

In October, following a lawsuit filed by relatives of the murdered engineers, investigating magistrate Renaud van Ruymbeke, specialised in financial crime, announced he was to launch an investigation into allegations that commissions from the submarine deal were channelled into a company set up with Sarkozy's approval.

Both Balladur and Sarkozy have firmly denied the claims. But a number of incidents hindering the enquiries of Paris-based magistrate Mark Trévidic, incharge of investigations into the engineers' murders, have served to raise suspicions that the French authorities are deliberately blocking the case, including refusals to transmit key official documents relative to the investigation.

Central to the theory that the Karachi attack was in revenge for France blocking further payment of the network of kickbacks, is that the sums were ordered to be blocked immediately after the 1995 election to the presidency of Balladur's rival, Jacques Chirac. This, it is suggested, served to snuff out Balladur's hopes of funding a base of support that would continue to challenge Chirac.

In 1995, Chirac succeeded socialist president François Mitterrand who had served two successive terms in office. Mitterrand's remarkable 14-year reign, which remains the longest of any French president1, saw him twice share power with conservative Right governments, as was the case when he 'co-habited' with prime minister Edouard Balladur, between 1993 and 1995. It was during that period, in September, 1994, that France negotiated the sale to Pakistan of the three Agosta submarines.

Four months after the deal, in January 1995, while Chirac, the RPR Gaullist party candidate, was already well into his election campaigning, Balladur, formerly a leading RPR figure close to Chirac, publicly announced he, too, would run. He rallied the support of several Gaullist politicians, notably including Nicolas Sarkozy who became his campaign spokesman.

Despite an early lead over Chirac in opinion surveys, Balladur finally polled less than Chirac in the first of the election's two-rounds. Chirac went through to a play-off against Socialist Party candidate Lionel Jospin, and Balladur effectively entered a political wilderness, unable to build a party of support, and from which he never professionaly recovered.

Once the election was over, the campaign expenses of each candidate were to be scrutinised by the nation's highest constitutional authority, the Constitutional Council, to ensure that they complied with electoral law.

But what was not known at the time was that the Constitutional Council's own investigators had raised serious doubts about some of Balladur's election finances and urged its members to reject those accounts. Now for the first time, Mediapart has reconstructed the events of that year and asks the question: how could the Council, the guarantor of the propriety of presidential elections, have approved accounts considered to be in breach of the rules by its own investigators?

It all started on July 12th, 1995, when the Council's president, former French foreign minister Roland Dumas, chose the team of ten 'assistants' who between them would go through the presidential campaign accounts that had just been declared. These high-ranking civil servants were senior judicial officials ('maîtres des requêtes'), at the country's top administrative court, the Council of State, and judges (conseillers référendaires) in the Court of Audit overseeing public accounts. They carried out the investigation work on their own.

The accounts they examined included those of Edouard Balladur, as well as the Socialist Party candidate Lionel Jospin, beaten in the final, second round, and the victorious Jacques Chirac who became president on May 17th.

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1: Mitterrand's two terms of office were two, seven-year terms. While Jacques Chirac also served two terms, his second was a five-year term, after a change in French constitutional law limiting presidential mandates to five years.

 

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