Thales Staff Silent, Except to Deny Corruption
"No, I'm afraid Monsieur Thetard will not take your call. No, he will not call you back. I'm sorry."
The woman who answers the phone in the office of Alain Thetard at Thales is polite but firm. Thetard a key figure in the Scorpions' investigation in the arms deal, will not speak to the media.
Thales has drawn a ring of silence around Thetard and others named in the case against Schabir Shaik, Deputy President Jacob Zuma's financial advisor.
"We deny any involvement in corruption. Beyond that, we have no comment."
Sources within Thales say the Zuma issue is being taken seriously "at the highest level", but Thales executives have decided not to comment at this stage.
A French judicial inquiry led by senior magistrate Edith Boizette could shed more light on the action of Alain Thetard, Thales executive vice president Jean Paul Perrier and others, if the French minister of justice gives permission for the investigation to go ahead.
Boizette worked on the Thales issue in 2001, when a previous investigation requested by the Scorpions lead to an exhaustive search of Thales's offices in Paris.
The huge company, in which the French government has a 40% stake, prides itself on its code of ethics.
"As a responsible corporate citizen in a global society and a major player in international markets with ever-stricter ground rules, Thales earns the continuing confidence of its customers, employees and shareholders through irreproachable business practices," reads a June 2003 report.
"Thales ensures rigorous compliance with national legislation in all its countries of operation, and with the rules and standards governing international trade."
The E11billion-a-year group operates from new offices in the swanky Paris suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine. Flowers are still planted in the gardens of the big building near Neuilly's English hospital. The yells of small children from a nearby school resonate in the wide courtyard where a handful of employees have come out for a cigarette.
From here Thales manages 65 000 staff in 50 countries, working in aerospace, defence - the top revenue earner - and information technology.
Today's Thales grew out of an older company, Thomson, which was nationalised in 1982, then partially reprivatised in 1988 with funds from French industrial giants Alcatel and Dassault, whose top executives, with those of the state railway company, are Thales directors.
With acknowledgements to Alide Dasnois and the Sunday Argus.