'Whore' Fights to Become a Heroine
A woman accused of corruption is vowing to clean up France
She called herself 'the whore of the republic'. Her former lover called her France's Mata Hari. But in the country's biggest post-war sleaze trial, Christine Deviers-Joncour is trying to show she's a changed woman. The problem is, the court seems to prefer the old version.
Everyone in the packed Paris courtroom was laughing at Deviers-Joncour last week. At one point, she leapt to her feet to say she had worked tirelessly for Elf-Aquitaine, and allegations that she received 64.5 million francs (nearly £7m) from the oil giant for a job involving no real work were false.
But the judge, Sophie Portier, cut her short with a jibe: 'You put your body and soul into the job.' Deviers-Joncour sank back down, her head in her hands as the small wood-panelled room collapsed in roars of laughter.
Two years ago, Deviers-Joncour wrote a book, The Whore of the Republic, in which she admitted she was paid by the then state-owned firm to lobby her lover, Roland Dumas, the late President François Mitterrand's Foreign Minister, to win approval for a colossal arms deal with Taiwan.
What could the judge's jibe mean, other than that the former lingerie model had used her body to woo one of France's leading politicians into a world of corruption and lies to benefit Elf Aquitaine?
It hurt because Deviers-Joncour is portraying herself as a latter-day Mary Magdalene who fell, but who has since found her way again. She is no longer the 'whore of the republic', but the figure of Liberty herself, leading France's honest, brave people out of the rubble of sleaze.
And France needs someone to perform that task. Corruption oozes from its body politic. President Jacques Chirac has still not properly answered accusations that the coffers of his Gaullist RPR party were swollen by covert slush funds in the Eighties.
But no sooner was that scandal revealed than another stole its thunder. The French press called it 'Angolagate', a huge money-laundering and arms-trafficking scam involving the illicit sale to Angola of £350m-worth of Russian helicopters, tanks, weapons and other military equipment in 1993 and 1994. It embroiled Jean-Christophe Mitterrand, the late President's son, and implicated many senior politicians.
Now this third corruption case is riveting the nation. It is a soap opera, complete with a silver-haired seducer of a politician and a spurned lover, illegal arms sales, lavish parties and lots of cash.
Deviers-Joncour has portrayed herself as the victim of machinations by Elf's second in command, Alfred Sirven. He is charged with corruption along with her, Dumas and four other senior company officials. Unfortunately, Sirven is being tried in absentia. He is believed to be living a high life in the Philippines.
Perhaps not surprisingly, he has been blamed by co-defendants for setting up the slush fund, feathering colleagues' nests and trying to buy off one of France's most senior politicians with the aid of the former model's charms.
In the Whore of the Republic, which brought the whole Elf scandal luridly before the country, Deviers-Joncour claimed the firm hired her in 1989 because of her 'amorous' relationship with Dumas. Although billed as a public relations consultant, she had no office, and conducted all her 'business' - dinners, receptions and introductions - from a £1.7m Left Bank apartment paid for by Sirven.
The book stopped well short of implicating her lover. She claimed he never gave in to her lobbying, received no money from Elf and knew nothing of the £6m commission she took for the deal. Elf also settled her credit card bills of up to £20,000 a month.
In return, she was expected to persuade her lover to serve the company's interests. Deviers-Joncour claimed she represented good value.
On one occasion, Sirven used her to get the itinerary of a presidential tour changed because it excluded a country in which Elf had 'important interests'.
Deviers-Joncour had to fly to New York, where her lover was involved in talks at the United Nations. She dogged his footsteps until Dumas agreed, telling her: 'Well done, little soldier. You've won. Now you can go home.'
Elf won an 'enormous contract' as a consequence, prompting her to claim she deserved a life pension from Elf for that deal alone, 'and there were others'.
Indeed, she claimed to be serving it so assiduously that she risked annoying Dumas, who began calling her Mata Hari and asked: 'Are you here for me or for Elf-Aquitaine?'
Then she changed her story. She confessed to the magazine Paris-Match that she had lied to protect her lover. Was this the revenge of the spurned lover, or just a new desire to tell the truth? Either way, she seemed determined to bring Dumas down with her.
Both were investigated, and he resigned as president of the Constitutional Council, France's senior legal authority.
In court last week she changed her story again, claiming Dumas had not pressurised Elf to appoint her. This was a great fillip for the former Foreign Minister's chances of avoiding prosecution. But this story was contradicted later by one of the Elf officials on trial. He said he had signed Deviers-Joncour's employment contract at Dumas's request.
The nervous, pencil-thin Deviers-Joncour, aged 53, looked tired and drawn throughout the week, and wept several times.
Dumas railed against her when he appeared as a witness last Wednesday. 'She was an emissary,' he said, but not for Le Floch-Prigent (Elf's head in the early Nineties), rather for Sirven.
Deviers-Joncour, on the verge of tears, shouted: 'But I came to your office with M Le Floch-Prigent! Why are you denying it? It drives me crazy!'
Dumas, a former barrister, retained his sang froid throughout. She was less composed in giving her evidence, repeatedly answering questions by saying: 'I don't know'. His case seemed to strengthen, hers to weaken.
Maybe the 'whore of the republic' will take the fall for the man called 'the prince of intrigue in Mitterrand's palace'. There will be three more weeks of courtroom drama before we find out.
With acknowledgements to Stuart Jeffries and The Observer.