Presidents of oil-producing African countries who are close allies of France are not used to questions being asked about their luxury cars or their homes in chic parts of Paris, but that is changing fast.
French anti-corruption activists are trying to prod the justice system into questioning how the leaders of Gabon, Congo Republic and Equatorial Guinea and their families could afford to acquire assets worth tens of millions of euros in France.
Reuters says the evidence is a 2007 police file thick as a brick, listing dozens of bank accounts, properties in rich districts of Paris and on the Riviera, and a collection of Bugattis, Ferraris, Maybachs, Maseratis and a Rolls-Royce Phantom.
Two plaintiffs, the French arm of Transparency International and a Gabonese citizen, have asked the French courts to probe how the assets were paid for, alleging embezzlement.
The presidents deny this. But the French media have leapt on the story and activists have staged colourful protests for the cameras, like a mock police seizure of some of the posh homes.
After French state TV aired a report on its president’s assets last year, Gabon summoned the French ambassador to protest against what it called “a hostile press campaign” — a flavour of how relations could go should the case come to trial.
It is now up to a French magistrate to decide whether the NGO and the Gabonese man can be admitted as plaintiffs. The decision is due within the next few weeks and will either halt legal proceedings or trigger a full judicial investigation.
A green light would set a precedent for anti-corruption campaigners across the world to tackle sitting presidents.
A red light would raise suspicions that some African rulers are protected because of French interests in their countries, despite President Nicolas Sarkozy’s vows to break with the past.
“No one can doubt that there are issues of national interest at play … It’s about France’s energy independence,” lawyer William Bourdon, who represents the plaintiffs, told Reuters.
Break with the past?
All three countries are oil and gas exporters. Gabon and Congo Republic are former French colonies where Total is the leading energy producer and many other French firms, public and private, have long-term contracts.
Presidents Omar Bongo of Gabon and Denis Sassou-Nguesso of Congo have both enjoyed close ties with successive French rulers and backing from Paris at testing moments of their careers.
As a candidate for the presidency, Sarkozy said he wanted to “end complacency, secrets and ambiguities” in relations with Africa, to “get rid of the networks of the past” and to place less emphasis on personal friendships between presidents.
At home and in Africa, everyone knew what he meant.
The Elf scandal in the 1990s exposed illegal dealings at the state-owned oil group and complex, mutually dependent relations between French and African politicians and powerful middlemen.
Now, the attempt to probe the wealth of such long-standing friends of France as Bongo and Sassou-Nguesso will test Sarkozy’s pledge that things would be different under his rule.
“If the justice system is allowed to work freely on this issue, that in itself will represent a break with the past,” said Jean Merckaert of aid group CCFD-Terre Solidaire.
He predicted a backlash against French interests in Gabon and Congo if a trial took place, but said he was uncertain whether the government would ever let it get to that stage.
In office, Sarkozy has been less clear than as a candidate.
When Jean-Marie Bockel, secretary of state for development, threatened to halt French aid to African countries with corrupt leaders, he was shifted to veterans’ affairs.
His successor, Alain Joyandet, declared that “we want to help the Africans, but there has to be something in it for us”, dismaying aid groups who said that was precisely the kind of approach that had led to corrosive relationships in the past.
On the other hand, a politically inconvenient trial centred on arms sales to Angola during that country’s civil war has proceeded freely despite the risk that it could harm French interests in sub-Saharan Africa’s number two oil exporter.
Whether or not the case of the three presidents’ assets is allowed to continue, some analysts say that the very fact that the assets are under scrutiny shows how far France has come.
“It makes a difference if all of that stuff that used to be swept under the carpet is out in the open,” said Antony Goldman, a risk analyst for clients seeking to do business in Africa.
He said disclosure in itself made it less and less acceptable for businesses to go into deals or countries blindly.
“If it’s common knowledge in newspapers and on the Internet even back home, it does change the political climate,” he said.