France's 'Watergate' trial opens

Caroline Wyatt | Paris | Nov 15

BBC – In France, 12 people have gone on trial for running a phone-tapping operation used by the late President Francois Mitterrand to monitor his opponents.

The defendants were almost all civil servants and they include current Renault chief Louis Schweitzer.

The case has taken 22 years to come to court, because of state secrecy orders that prevented the judge gaining access to key documents.

It has been described as France’s own Watergate scandal.

All the defendants in the Paris trial are accused of breach of privacy and face a maximum sentence of a year in jail and a fine.

‘Massive eavesdropping unit’

Memories of the events being recalled in court may be hazy more than two decades later, but the charges are all too clear.

They are a reminder to many of one of the biggest scandals in French post-war history, and further evidence for some of the corruption and the arrogance of Mr Mitterrand’s Socialist government.

The late French president set up a specialist anti-terrorist unit, after the 1982 bombing of a Jewish area in central Paris.

Somehow, the unit turned into a massive private eavesdropping exercise, taping thousands of hours of conversations.

It reported directly to the president, by-passing the French intelligence services.

Journalists, lawyers, businessmen and even the actress and model Carole Bouquet were among those whose private phone conversations were tapped over long periods of time.

Most of the 12 defendants in this three-month trial will argue that they were only carrying out orders from above.

note: I’ll try to find a better article on the subject.  Le Monde (one of the prime targets of the operation) has a whole bunch of stuff but it’s too detailed for translation purposes, still if you read French and for some strange reason don’t read Le Monde regularly I’d suggest going over thre

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  • French bugging trial begins

    Actor and journalists among alleged victims of phone-tapping cell set up two decades ago to protect Mitterrand

    Jon Henley in Paris
    Tuesday November 16, 2004
    The Guardian

    Twenty years after the event, 12 men appeared in court yesterday accused of running an illegal eavesdropping operation for François Mitterrand – supposedly aimed at combating terrorism, but in fact seeking to preserve some of the late French president’s secrets – including the existence of a daughter by his mistress.

    The Elysée’s undercover phone-tapping cell, set up after the bombing of a Jewish restaurant in the Marais district of the capital in 1982, targeted the telephones of 150 people including lawyers, journalists, political rivals and even an actor until 1986.

    Among those accused of illegal invasion of privacy and facing up to a year in prison are the former head of France’s GIGN anti-terrorist unit, Christian Prouteau, who ran the cell; Gilles Ménage, Mitterrand’s then principal private secretary; and the chief aides to two of his prime ministers – one of whom, Louis Schweitzer, now runs the carmaker Renault.

    Mitterrand, who died in 1996, and his defence minister Charles Hernu, who died in 1990, denied the cell had ever existed. While most of the defendants in what is known in France as “Elyséegate” have admitted some of the offences, they will argue they were merely obeying the head of state.

    “Mitterrand’s shadow is hanging very heavily over this trial,” Yves Bonnet, a former head of the French intelligence service DST, said.

    Lawyers said yesterday that the defendants could not be punished for “not saying no” to the president. “There existed in this country an institution that was above the law, condoned by the ultimate political authority,” said one lawyer, Francis Szpiner.

    Another defence lawyer, Jacques Verges, added: “The three months of this trial must allow the truth to come out about everyone.”

    The earliest candidate for the cell’s attentions was Antoine Comte, a lawyer acting for three alleged Irish terrorists arrested in the Bois de Vincennes in 1983 and suspected of involvement in the Marais bomb attack. Mr Comte knew the evidence had been fabricated by the GIGN, and said as much to journalists.

    So the phone-tapping campaign was extended to reporters such as Edwy Plenel, now the editor of Le Monde, who said yesterday he would confine his comments on the case to those he made from the witness box, and to Georges Marion of the satirical magazine Le Canard Enchainée.

    The bugging of Plenel intensified dramatically in 1985 when he began investigating rumours that the Rainbow Warrior, the Greenpeace ship that sank in Auckland harbour that year, had been blown up by the French secret service.

    But other victims of the operation had nothing to do with national security. Jean-Edern Hallier, an author and former close friend of Mitterrand, was bugged after he threatened to publish a book, The Lost Honour of François Mitterrand, that would have revealed the existence of the president’s daughter Mazarine.

    The cell ordered taps on seven phone lines in its efforts not to miss a single one of Hallier’s conversations. The numbers included those of his Equadorian cleaning woman; and of his publisher and financial adviser. The writer died in 1997.

    But perhaps the unlikeliest of the cell’s victims was Carole Bouquet, later the face of Chanel and wife of Gérard Depardieu. The bugging of the young star was apparently justified by reports that her then husband, film producer Jean-Pierre Rassam, had ties with the president of Algeria.

    As scandalous as the taps themselves is the time it took to bring the case to court.

    The affair was first revealed by the daily Liberation in 1993, but the investigating magistrate, Jean-Paul Valat, had to battle against governments of right and left that were determined to cover up the affair.

    In 1995, after the gendarme charged with storing the phone-tap records mysteriously hanged himself, a “brunette dressed in black” gave the magistrate five computer disks containing 5,000 pages of transcripts.

    But it was not until 1998 that the then socialist prime minister, Lionel Jospin, declared all relevant archives open, allowing Mr Valat to complete his investigation – and one of the last scandals of the Mitterrand era to come to court.,11882,1352114,00.html

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