French ex-PM Édouard Balladur goes on trial over alleged kickbacks

Kim Willsher in Paris
·3 min read
<span>Photograph: Yoan Valat/EPA</span>
Photograph: Yoan Valat/EPA

Former French prime minister Édouard Balladur has gone on trial accused of financing his failed 1995 presidential campaign with illegal kickbacks from international arms deals.

The 91-year-old rightwing politician is the latest high-ranking French politician to find himself in the dock over the so-called Karachi affair that has poisoned the country’s political life for more than 25 years.

He made no statement to a throng of journalists as he arrived at the court of justice of the republic, which hears cases involving ministerial wrongdoing.

Balladur, who has been charged with complicity in the alleged misappropriation of public funds, has previously denied any wrongdoing, saying he did not know of any kickbacks and was not responsible for the details of the finances in the presidential campaign.

He reportedly told investigators he thought the massive cash injection to his campaign funds came from the sale of T-shirts at rallies and meetings.

The scandal centres on allegations of corruption in connection with two 1990s French arms contracts during the final years of François Mitterrand’s presidency, when Balladur was prime minister.

Three former government officials were among six people found guilty in June of charges involving kickbacks from the sale of submarines to Pakistan and frigates to Saudi Arabia signed between 1993 and 1995. The kickbacks are estimated at around 13m francs, worth almost €2m today, 10m francs of which went as a cash donation to Balladur’s campaign.

Those found guilty included Nicolas Bazire, Balladur’s former campaign manager; Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres, a former adviser to defence minister François Léotard; and Thierry Gaubert, a former adviser to the then budget minister and later president Nicolas Sarkozy. Bazire and Donnedieu de Vabres were sentenced to five years, with two years suspended.

The court in that case said the defendants could not have ignored that more than 10m Francs – the equivalent of €1.6m – that found its way into Balladur’s campaign accounts was of “dubious origin”.

A Lebanese go-between, Ziad Takieddine, was sentenced to five years in prison but is currently in Lebanon, which has no extradition treaty with France.

Sarkozy, Balladur’s election spokesperson and budget minister at the time of the election, was interviewed as a witness in the inquiry.

Paying bribes on arms deals was not unusual in the 1990s, but earning kickbacks on the deals was illegal.

The long-running affair is named after the Pakistani city where a bus carrying French defence engineers was blown up in May 2002 killing 15 people, including 11 employees of a French naval group.

Al-Qaida was first suspected of the terror attack, but it was later claimed the bombing was in retaliation for the non-payment of bribes promised by French officials. The 1995 election was won by Jacques Chirac, who immediately cancelled the payment of commissions on arms deals.

Last October, France’s constitutional court newly opened archives revealed the 1995 presidential campaign was probably the most contentious in terms of election financing in modern French history.

The court des comptes (court of accounts) discovered Balladur, who was PM between 1993 and 1995, had exceeded the maximum campaign spending by an estimated 6m francs, while Chirac had overspent by an estimated 5m francs. The campaign accounts were signed off and no action was taken in respect of any of the parties’ apparent overspend.

The trial is expected to continue until 11 February.